A retro puzzler you shouldn’t escape from

You’ve been thrown into the dungeon for the crime of practicing witchcraft, and now you must escape! Fortunately, you’re an escape goat – and you’re playing Escape Goat, the 2D puzzle-platformer that made its debut as an Xbox Live Indie Game last November and is now available on the PC – so this sort of thing comes naturally to you.

The setup in Escape Goat is a bit odd, to put it mildly. You are, quite literally, a goat, who’s been imprisoned by an unjust ruler. As your bid for freedom begins, you make the acquaintance of a mouse, who decides he wants to bust out with you. You’ll eventually stumble across some sleeping sheep who, upon awakening, provide cryptic snippets of backstory about your prison and its guardians. Only by freeing all the sheep, and discovering all their secrets, will your own freedom be achieved!

To make your escape, you’ll have to jump around between platforms, push buttons, dodge fireballs and falling rocks, and brave all sorts of other deadly hazards to unlock the gate that stands between you and the next level. Finding a magic hat (which, sadly, the mouse gets to wear; it must be a very small hat) allows you to immediately switch places with the mouse anywhere on the level, affording access to areas that would otherwise be unreachable. It all starts off easily enough, but the difficulty begins to ramp up sharply around the midpoint of the game. Before long you’ll be facing some truly infuriating challenges.

The prison is divided into ten areas, each with its own “motif,” like the Electric Lab, the Crypt or the Lost City, all of which can be tackled (once unlocked, which is a fairly quick and painless process) in whatever order you like. Each level has a very specific solution, sometimes obvious and sometimes obtuse, so trial and error is naturally a big part of the game, especially the error part – and even when you know what needs to be done, putting together the timing and dexterity needed to make it happen is no easy task. You can expect to die a lot, and if your fingers tend to fumble more than fly, your patience will likely be put to the test as much as your manual dexterity.

Escape Goat

Escape Goat isn’t much to look at, with a decidedly retro, 8-bit visual style that’s adequate for the task but not much else. Musically, on the other hand, it’s excellent, to the point that the disconnect between the visuals and the soundtrack is sometimes outright jarring.

The controls are simple enough – up, down, left, right, jump, throw the mouse – and can be remapped if the default layout isn’t sufficiently intuitive. With a total of 100 levels – the 50 from the original Xbox Live release plus another 50 that have been put together for the PC edition – there’s a lot to play through, and in case that’s not enough, a full-blown editor is included with the game as well, allowing players to create and share their own designs with the community.

Escape Goat

This is a game that does a lot right, but it’s hampered somewhat by the very mechanical nature of its puzzles. Virtually everything must be done in a specific, step-by-step process, or your efforts will be for naught. If there are two buttons to be pushed, you can bet that pushing the wrong one first will leave you unable to advance; mislay a block or a barrel and a quick reset will be your only option. Sometimes it feels a little too rigid for its own good, and gamers who lack the tolerance for that sort of “do it right or do it again” gameplay will likely be turned off.

Still, no matter how many times I threw my hands up in frustration, I’d soon find myself back for just one more try – and another, and another.And that’s the essence of Escape Goat; it lacks the visual sophistication of some other games and will no doubt leave players cursing its very existence, at least briefly, as they struggle to unlock its mysteries. But it’s an addictive thing, too – even if “fun” doesn’t always seem like quite the right word to describe it. For gamers after a serious challenge to both their wits and their fingers, and who aren’t hung up on a need for eye candy, it’s just what the doctor ordered.