Indie Game of the Week 119: Divide By Sheep

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Due to the always busy May schedule, I appreciate when a game like Divide By Sheep drops into my lap - it is presently being given away for free on the Steam store, and will be for the remainder of this weekend (May 11-12). Divide By Sheep is a puzzle game I've had my eye on ever since I logged a bunch of wishlist items from one of those "highest rated Steam games with lowest amount of sales" charts that was doing the rounds a little while ago (which, naturally, I now can't seem to find). It's also very evidently an iOS/Android game adapted for the Steam marketplace. There's a certain appealing wholesomeness to a lot of mobile game aesthetics that seem designed to catch your eye while scrolling the iOS store: a sales tactic that might be as viable on Steam had it any sort of similar visual cohesion.

Divide By Sheep's gameplay starts with the hoary "take three things across the river that'll eat other, so you gotta take multiple trips" logic puzzle format and then adapts it into a gridlike puzzle game where the goal is to successfully deposit a specific number of sheep (or sheep-eating wolves, or the departed spirits of either) into a target area three times. Various obstacles and traps are designed to facilitate gathering the goal amount, and it's often where the game lets its dark sense of humor shine: you're not actually told to rescue the maximum amount of sheep, but just the specific amount you need. That means the rest can be drowned, eaten, immolated, chopped in half (the bisected pieces of which actually count for half a sheep each, leading to some tricky fraction puzzles), or simply abandoned once the level is complete. Before too long, you're also saving groups of the sheep's sinister-looking lupine predators too. The third world even explicitly asks that you kill a certain number of animals to meet a total of "souls" that a Grim Reaper figure is looking for.

Many puzzle games are best demonstrated with visuals over a verbal explanation, and Divide By Sheep is no exception. I'll guide you all through a demonstration puzzle to give you a better sense of what the game demands of you:

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  • So here we have a lot of sheep in various groupings, and the three goal targets lined up on the left: a group of five, followed by a group of four, and finally a group of three. We need to get these groups, individually, onto the dinghy on the top left. You also can get these target amounts to the dinghy in smaller groups if desired - that first target amount of five can be met by dropping two sheep on the dinghy and then another three after it. Exceeding the amount produces a penalty mark: you can complete a level with only one correct rescued group, but earning all three means unlocking the later levels faster (and earns you "perfect" achievements too, if that's your thing).
  • We have thirteen sheep on the field and twelve total if you add up the three target amounts: this means we can only afford to lose one sheep.
  • The immediate problem here is that there are no extant groups of five for that first goal target. However, there is a group of two and a group of three. It's a simple matter of moving that group of three in the middle to the upper right, moving the group of four next to the dinghy down to where the three-group just was, and then moving both the two-group and three-group around the map in a counter-clockwise fashion and dropping them both off on the dinghy for the first goal target.
  • The second target's even easier: you still have that four-group you moved earlier, so they can be moved back to where they started and dropped off also.
  • With the final four-group, you can now take advantage of that three-square platform. Landing the group there will cause one sheep to fall into the water (any swimming ability is rendered moot by the various shark fins around, so that's pretty much that sheep screwed) leaving you with a three-group to move onto the dinghy to complete the level.

The game has a sort of ebbing and flowing nature to its difficulty curve. There will be times where you might get stymied by a single level for thirty minutes or more, and other times where you could fly through a dozen stages in half as many minutes. The game isn't lacking for content - 150 levels spread across five worlds - but the actual amount of time required to beat the game can alternatively feel way too long and way too short. Most of this ebbing and flowing occurs around the introduction of new mechanics; a new trap, or the combination of several previous ones, will cause the difficulty to dip slightly so you can quickly catch up with the changes. These additions are often accompanied by incongruously cute interstitial splash screens that, though dialogue-free, provide any specific details you might need. Like many of these low-key puzzle games, it has a more perfunctory approach to a narrative - you're simply given a (frequently grim, though the cutesy aesthetic never lets up) mission to perform, and an increasingly difficult set of variations on it.

After rushing through the end of KOTOR 2 and writing my experiences up in an absurdly long review, I needed something that would help me mentally recharge. Divide By Sheep's diabolical puzzles aren't exactly easy or stress-free, but when you're in the "flow" stage of the game and ticking off puzzles one after the other with an accompanying little three note ditty that indicates you successfully completed all three goals of the level, there's something almost meditative about it. For as often as I get my ass kicked (mentally speaking) by puzzle games, I can't seem to stay away for long. Maybe I just like feeling smart, for as fleeting as that emotion can be when another stumper is right around the corner and ready to pounce.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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