The puzzle platform game has become a staple of console indies over the last generation. You can’t swing a cat without hitting plenty of examples, all looking to test your brain to the limit with fiendish puzzles, that’ll have you spending more time scratching your head than jumping around. With the arrival of Escape Goat 2 on the PlayStation 4, a new challenger has appeared – and even though some will already be familiar with its particular brand of goat-based action on the PC, this is the first time that it's graced a Sony system.
The title sees your plucky goat entering a castle to rescue the souls of sheep trapped within its confines. Why are the sheep trapped there, and why is it full of devilish puzzles and fireball flinging enemies? By the time that you’ve completed your mission, you’re unlikely to know the answer. If you’re some sort of savant, capable of making sense of the sparse cryptic dialogue, then you may be able to work it out, but for most the narrative will be quickly dismissed.
The lack of story isn’t a problem here, though, as it’s the puzzles that are the main event. Making your way around the interior of the castle, each screen represents a self contained puzzle that has a simple objective: get to the exit. Things start off slow, with the solutions in the early levels involving basic platforming and hitting the right pressure switches to shift the level layout, but soon you’ll progress onto more complex conundrums.
Outside of teaching you the controls via on screen prompts, there aren’t any other tutorials to be found. This has become quite a common approach in this genre, so once again it’s a case of learning by doing. Fortunately the puzzle design makes this fun, and by picking at the threads of each level, you’ll start to see how your actions trigger reactions, building the knowledge that you need to take on the puzzles further down the road.
While as a goat you have very few tools at your disposal – you can only perform a double jump and a charge move that boosts you forward – at the start, it’s not long before you’ll find a mouse companion. This useful rodent can be instructed to sit on switches, or can be released to run along floors, walls, and ceilings, triggering switches that you would normally be unable to reach yourself.
While this sounds relatively innocuous, by the time that you start to come across magical items that let you switch places with your mouse, or turn them into a stone block, you’ll be spending significantly more time working out just what on Earth you need to do to escape, than actually executing your plan.
This is true trial and error gameplay, and it's inevitable that some will find this off putting. It’s very easy to end up in a position that bars any more progression, and as a result, you’ll be restarting levels frequently. Early on this is less of a problem, but some of the later stages require you to not only carry out a series of actions in a very specific order, but also with pinpoint timing. Luckily a successful run takes no more than a minute or so to complete, so you never feel like you’re losing much progress by pushing reset.
It’s also great that the controls are supremely precise, and pretty much every failure will be down to you doing the wrong thing – or the right thing at the wrong time. While frustration is inevitable in this sort of game – especially when your stupid brain fails to see the solution – when you do have the ‘light bulb’ moment and the path becomes crystal clear, you’ll mostly feel the failing is your own, and not due to obtuse puzzle design on the developer's part.
The one exception to this is in a set of levels that see you being pursued by a bone creature; these add even more time pressure than experienced before, and there’s very little opportunity to think about what’s happening on screen. Due to this, you’ll find yourself instinctively reacting to the action leading to frequent failure. This makes the process of working out how to progress a much more fraught task, and for some, this may push their patience beyond its limits.
Graphically, the game does exactly what it needs to in the application of its 16-bit style. With a clean aesthetic that’s applied with restraint, the urge to get too flashy has been kept firmly in check. This means that it looks fine, but more importantly, it never gets in the way of the action on the screen – just as it should be.
It’s possible to escape the castle without having solved every puzzle, so, once you’ve earned your liberty, you can return to rescue any sheep souls that you may have missed. On top of this, there are also a number of very well hidden secret rooms to discover, which contain within some even trickier puzzles that’ll test the geniuses who breezed through the rest of the game.
Escape Goat 2 is a great puzzle platformer that never sign posts the way. It believes that you're smart enough to work things out for yourself, and thanks to some really clever level design, continually trains you so that you're ready for the challenges ahead. While many will lack the patience for the trials within, those willing to butt heads with its puzzles will get a lot from this challenging but fun title.