Review: Divide by Sheep17 Jan 2019 1
Review: Divide by Sheep
Released 01 Jul 2015
Number sense: you know your way around figures, can manipulate them quickly, line them up, cut them down to size. Calculating a tip, or guesstimating interest rate accrual. It’s a vague skill practiced from childhood in a million ways, large and small. Good to have for sure, but not exactly fun on its own. Every now and then a puzzle game makes regular arithmetic and number sense into centrepieces, and polishes each until it shines and fascinates. Divide by Sheep makes the player into a click-clack abacus for sheep destruction, keeping the challenge varied by rotating new mechanics and obstacles at a bracing pace. It can count itself among the lucky few games to make the ordinary deeply satisfying.
Each level has a setup of islands, sheep, obstacles and other dohickeys to fiddle with. The goal, ultimately, is to gather up sheep in groups with specific numbers and usher them onto the lifeboats. In a way this is a pathing problem, but really it breaks down into numbers, operations, and ordering. You have the raw material of the level presented right at the get-go, and just flick to send the sheep from one platform to an adjacent one. Maybe they fall into the water, get eaten by wolves, diced by lasers, mutilated by explosives...or maybe they join ranks with another group of sheep. Add, subtract, multiply, divide: the game is a primer on how these nominally dull operations work when placed at your fingertips.
The puzzles are clearly presented from the get-go, meaning the player can mentally model and consider a variety of potential solutions relatively easily. Puzzles are about tinkering and manipulating the field to see if that solution sitting in your head plays out nearly as neatly in reality. On that front, the game is extremely responsive and easy to play. It’s accessible from a practical and theoretical standpoint. Each move has a spatial element (paths matter) and a numerical element (how many sheep matters), so in combination the levels are just vexing enough to be challenging without blocking forward momentum. Mental struggle gives way to fireworks as that indefinable eureka moment comes, again and again.
Besides sheep and platforms, there are lasers, bombs, spatial vortices, Charon ferries, bouncing plates and safety nets, slippery pigs and voracious wolves. Each works distinctly, with a few of them counter-intuitive (pigs in particular take priority in some unusual cases) but in general the elements combine in naturally exciting and stimulating ways. ‘Fun’ in puzzlers means constantly teasing new possibilities
The progression and total amount of levels is rather generous, but if you’re already great at this sort of thing the game might more accurately be more of an appetizer and less of a main dish. (As opposed to, say, The Talos Principle, The Witness, Stephen’s Sausage Roll). Still, full marks for using dozens of levels to explore the variety of possible challenges. New tools, new obstacles, little redundancy or repetition. Still finite though, and exhaustible. Each ‘world’ has a different palette, standard set of mechanics and thirty levels, so in total there are one-hundred and fifty levels, with little to no redundancy between them.
If there were one avenue of criticism, it would be that Divide By Sheep’s puzzles can be solved by brute force, just messing around very quickly and carelessly with the possible permutations of moves. It’s not as inscrutable as other puzzle games, which might refuse to crack at all until the proper insight makes itself known. Each level in Divide By Sheep has three stars, and a ‘perfect score’ is not necessary to advance past a level, but a certain amount is required to move to new worlds. This means less gatekeeping and greater accessibility, but it also comes across as padding content somewhat. So whether these features are a liability or a reasonable compromise is a matter of perspective, but they are deliberate and present in the game.
In terms of design and art direction, the game’s buoyant blend of cartoonish gore matches the game perfectly. Messing around just to see the animations and mayhem is fun, as it well should be. It conveys the tone of gameplay deftly and sets the mood without being too flashy or forward.
All in all, the game makes for an excellent romp. Yes, it’s an excellent way to get anybody to practice their sums but that’s like praising a dish for ‘sneaking’ vegetables into it. Edifying to be sure, but a delight in its own right.