By this point, there are likely thousands of games inspired by the metroidvania formula. Indie games, specifically, are a hotbed for this template due to the relative simplicity that goes into it. Uncover a new area, collect a traversal item, and return to the prior area to unlock another new area with the acquired item. Generalizing as I am, it’s a pretty straightforward explanation to the basis of these types of adventures. SHEEPO is another venture into this genre, and its review of all things hindsight will be key to nurturing the game to new, or at least memorable, heights.
What should also be noted going into SHEEPO is that it was developed with pacifism in mind. This age of humanity has begun to dwell on the moral conundrums of constant action, violence, and excessive death in games. Think of some of your favorite games of all time; now ponder, how many of those games involved gun-shooting, killing, or things considered abject by the general public? Chances are that many fit one, if not all, of these conditions. While it has little to do with this game specifically, it features it within its advertising. As such, I felt it worth mentioning that there is very little outright death within; the majority proves a test for the player’s input dexterity.
SHEEPO is available on Steam for your regional pricing.
Story – Preservation and Hijinks
Sheepo has been hired by an unnamed agency and is on their first day with the job. They’re tasked with saving all the species on uncharted planet Cebron from extinction. Seems excessive, but this kind of whimsical writing is quite prevalent throughout the story. The game’s info often specifies that it is a “quirky” game, which is code for “doesn’t make much sense, so don’t question it.” Foregoing combat, Sheepo the sheeper must platform, fly, and dash past various obstacles in order to collect unhatched eggs from each of the species on Cebron. Conveniently for them, the planet only houses six creatures, so the journey won’t be too terribly long.
Perhaps in the spirit of metroidvania, the amount of exposition and dialogue is kept to a fair minimum. Some NPCs and a recurring agency representative keep voices prevalent, but most of the game will feature quiet exploration and some measure of visual storytelling. Individual areas are not completely random; they make sense in their connection to one another, allowing for a world to be produced that tells something about the state of the planet and its inhabitants. Subtle as it is, it helps with involved immersion that keeps the player invested. When dialogue does come into play, and it isn’t just trying to be offbeat, it signals these factors with short but integral comments. Experimenting with a number of different tones, SHEEPO is a game that thrives on unpredictability.
Gameplay – Jump, Sheeper, Jump!
Platforming is the name of the game, and the journey takes advantage in a number of capacities. Conveniently placed booby traps, invisible walls, ledges just out of reach, and lots of signs to come pollute the screen in each room. Running from one side to the other may not be all that inviting on the surface, though that’s when the power of mental motivation comes into play. You could run from one side of the room to the other without difficulty, but what about that shiny feather just sitting there randomly? Why is it there? Could it be important? And hey, that wall is slightly jutting inward compared to the rest of the wall. That’s odd. And there are a bunch of birds flying about. The mind begins to churn and one’s motivation shifts from “Get to the goal” to “Get the goodies.” Perhaps it should, considering the platforming is the base extent of Sheepo’s capabilities… for a time.
To reveal my feelings at this opportune time, the game is fun. Particularly for those who thrive on precision, experimentation, and survival tactics. A modern Donkey Kong Country for the new generation, complete with Metroid aesthetics and a hint of Undertale irony. It effortlessly combines the best elements from all and crafts it into a package of non-stop energy and platforming finesse. As short as it is—took me roughly three hours to 100% it—it makes for a small yet explosive (non-)punch. Just don’t expect any baddies to beat down; it’s purely a puzzle-platformer at heart.
This isn’t to say that all one can do is jump, far from it. What makes this metroidvania-esque, aside from exploration and atmosphere, is the usage of items—in this case, transformations. Once an egg has been collected, Sheepo can transform into that creature for a limited time, taking advantage of expanded travel techniques. Whether slime balls or tongue flickers or noisy birds, Sheepo builds a repertoire of creatures to overcome any obstacle. SHEEPO even takes a page from Shantae! Alone it is already pretty engaging, but with opportunities abound to cross paths with transformable entities, the experience opens further for new possibilities. If there’s anything to know about this game, it’s that it adores random experimentation. Have you ever wanted to play Pachinko in a metroidvania game? Me neither, but this game showed me the light.
Boss battles also embody a lot of the chaotic spirit of the game. Most feature less damaging tactics and more “wait it out” methods of avoiding and dodging. Slightly bullet-hell in execution, the player will be running around for dear life as bosses eventually tire themselves out. They’re neat challenges of what the player is capable of, though not all are created equally. The Slime Queen is a tad more difficult than others, even eclipsing the final boss in difficulty, randomly. It creates a bit of an anticlimactic feel to end the game, even if the method for defeat is a bit varied.
Holes in the Armor
From a performance standpoint, there are bits and pieces that stand out a bit for the wrong reasons. In two separate instances, I had major slowdown occur for seemingly no reason. This was made all the more irritating when one of those two occurred during a boss fight, which deterred my performance. Additionally, while controlling one of the transformations, I cancelled just as I had come out of an area only accessible with that transformation and it had me stuck within the edge as Sheepo with no escape. I had to reset my progress from the last save point (because that’s thankfully possible). These occurrences were rare, though otherwise broke the immersion immediately. Little chinks in the armor that could use a bit more polish.
Another point of contention could be showcased through its accessibility. Many would (and have) praised the developer’s decision to keep things pretty difficult yet fair. Restarting from the previous save point (save points are plentiful), restoring all health once one saves, random health provided upon entering rooms, and being handed items which make hunting for collectibles a cinch all make for a pretty lenient experience. Perhaps it is my own pride, but I believe it goes a bit too far in handing things to the player as encouragement. Some of the things stated above are good to have, and I would not complain had it been incorporated in a different fashion, but as it is, there was a slight dissatisfaction in assessing my own skills when the game gave ample leeway. Hard mode is available, at least.
Graphics & Audio – Do Players Dream of Transforming Sheepers?
SHEEPO is not going to win any awards for its art direction. The animation for Sheepo itself is not exactly impressive, and a lot of the creatures on the planet are pretty simplistic in design. However, it is this level of simplicity and dreamy colors that make for a memorable aesthetic. As discussed before, the visual storytelling is enough to provide a lot of immersive qualities and interesting background narratives. Part of the charm in its execution is precisely because it doesn’t provide much. A strange world that seems unlike ours, yet harbors similarities in peculiar ways. The sheepers, the froggos, the bird-like denizens, referred to as “birds.” It’s definitely not Earth, though the interactions and subtle activities laid bare mirror an alternate reality. It’s bizarre on top of being neat.
Many little visual details also improve the game from the genre standpoint. Those little inverse walls are easy clues for something amiss. When transforming, a transparent timer circle will appear overhead, allowing the player to know how much time is available. And when players are close to danger, a barrage of red exclamation points will fly over Sheepo’s head. Small details such as this provide valuable feedback for players to pay attention and know what is and isn’t accessible.
Based solely on the name of the composer (Eric Thompson), I assume it is a relative to main developer Kyle Thompson. If not, that is a wild coincidence. Interesting trinket aside, E. Thompson incorporates a lot of soft, harmonious sounds to accompany the time on Cebron. It reminds me ever so slightly of the soundtrack to Mythic Ocean, only more minimal in execution. In a word, it’s comforting. A level of commitment to making a dream-like world sound dream-like is something I can wholly appreciate. Enjoyable while also highly ambiatic, it handles itself with minimalistic grace. Probably not the most memorable of soundtracks, but one that settles into the context of the game wonderfully.
SHEEPO was reviewed for PC via Steam, with a review code provided by Kyle Thompson.