A report on the Xbox Live Games with Gold titles available for November 2014.
Escape Goat 2 Review – Houdini With Horns
My editor, Eric Watson: So, Aaron, when are you going to actually REVIEW a game?
Aaron: I hadn’t put much thought into it, really. I’m having fun making Who’s That Game videos and destroying hotel rooms like my hero, Charlie Sheen. WINNING.
Eric: Really? That reference is three years old.
Aaron: ….I don’t take away your fun.
Eric: I have a game for you to review, it’s a puzzle game coming out soon.
Aaron: I do enjoy puzzles, but my schedule’s kinda full up.
Eric: You play as a goat.
Aaron: GIVE ME THAT GAME, YOU CHARLATAN!
Some of those events may be embellished. All of them. None of this is true.
I’m not huge into puzzle games; in fact, I’ve kind of drifted away from puzzle games as they’ve become more and more the purview of Facebook and iOS gamers. I still have many fond memories of playing Tetris on my Game Boy, or Portal on my PC, or Dr. Mario and Solomon’s Key at my best friend’s house on his NES.
Escape Goat 2 easily rose to be counted among my favorite puzzle game experiences. And not just because you play as a goat. But yes, that helped.
Escape Goat 2 is a puzzle platformer by indie studio MagicalTimeBean, and direct sequel to the original. I’ve never played Escape Goat, but from what I’ve read and heard, it was a solid puzzle platformer with great music and a fantastic learning curve. If that’s true, Escape Goat 2 carries on that tradition superbly. Without playing Escape Goat, I can’t say that it outdoes the original, but I’m betting this is one sequel that crushes its predecessor.
The story’s not much to speak of, but then puzzle games don’t usually have this much narrative and personality. You escaped from the dungeon of the first game, but the sheep you rescued have disappeared, apparently summoned to a new dungeon for some reason. Despite just having gained your own freedom, you decide to try to rescue your new friends one more time, and enter the stronghold yourself. As a narrative framework it does its job, but the writing in Escape Goat 2 excels in the little touches – some of the sheep aren’t all that pleased with being rescued, and there are ghosts of other animals in the dungeon, and it isn’t all that clear whether they want you to succeed or fail.
The presentation is fantastic – the 2D tile-based graphics are finely detailed and there are some great fog and lighting effects. This is a definite upgrade from the original Escape Goat in terms of art style and design. And the sound effects are excellent, matching the action and the overall feel of the game quite nicely. But the thing that really seals the deal for me is the music, oh, have mercy, the music. I want this soundtrack. Now.
UPDATE: The Escape Goat 2 Soundtrack has been released on Bandcamp.
Seriously, the soundtrack to this game is nothing short of perfection. It has a very Castlevania-esque quality about it, ethereal and haunting, but still somehow upbeat and catchy. It fits the design of the stronghold and the various sections just so well, and I don’t think I heard a track that I didn’t like. It just makes my ears so happy.
The gameplay is almost as perfect. You control the titular Goat as he jumps, double-jumps, and air-dashes his way through room after room, searching for switches and keys. The controls are tight and fluid, whether you use a 360 controller or program your own keys on the keyboard – so you can’t blame them when you get killed. And you WILL get killed. But it’s okay, because you respawn infinitely and almost instantly, so there’s almost no break in the puzzle action.
Your goal in most rooms is simple, get to the door. But getting to the door is frequently anything but simple. It starts off fairly easy, hitting switches to reconfigure the room, but swiftly grows in complexity. You’ll quickly find a mouse buddy who can fit into smaller gaps and climb on ceilings, and you can collect powerups to give him magic powers. Then there are the creatures whom I initially thought of as enemies, but soon learned were actually tools I needed, albeit dangerous tools. There are also tiles that change the rules, like the ice block that forces the mouse to turn around if he runs into it, or the clear one that you can’t move through, but fireballs and electricity can. You’ll need both your brains and your reflexes in top form to get through some of these rooms.
The difficulty curve is absolutely brilliant. Every section of the stronghold introduces two or three new mechanics, teaches you how they work, and then challenges you to figure out how to make the most of them in increasingly more difficult rooms. The gameplay always started me off easy, giving me confidence, and then steadily upped the difficulty, stumping me a little bit at first and getting more complex, almost to the point of frustration, but never quite getting there. Even the most devious and diabolical of levels (and there were a few) never made me rage quit.
Most of the rooms can be beaten in a few minutes, and that would make it easy to just pick up and play for bits of time here and there, but it also provides that “one more room” feeling which makes it hard to put down. At one point, I quit the game because I realized I wouldn’t get anywhere with figuring out the room I was stuck on unless I took my mind off it for a bit – which is when I saw the clock and was amazed to learn that I’d been playing for three hours straight. Time flies when you’re having fun, and the satisfaction of beating some of the more difficult rooms was pretty intoxicating. And there’s plenty of content here – over 100 rooms, optional paths, and hidden rooms that will require no small amount of ingenuity to find.
Before you think this game just had me orgasming rainbows and joy, I do have some criticisms. First, I was able to get through some rooms without using elements that were obviously set up for the developer’s intended solution – I’d circumvented the game, in other words. Second, the ending wasn’t terribly satisfying. Third, there are no unlockable extras, so there’s little replay value – or at least there will be until enough time has gone by for me to forget the solutions to most of the rooms. Some of the puzzle mechanics are barely used – I learned how to use the necromouse powerup over the span of a couple of rooms and never saw it again.
A review copy of the game was provided by the developer.