Sheep is an action-packed puzzle game with bright, colorful graphics, a humorous premise, and plenty of challenging levels. The game begins with a short background story to set the stage and some simple tutorials to help familiarize you with the unusual controls and game mechanics. You then set out on the primary journey through a series of seven distinct worlds. However, soon into this journey, it'll become apparent that Sheep manages to blur the line between game and chore and that the game's eye-catching graphics and lighthearted cartoon humor don't completely make up for its inherent flaws.
The basic story of the game is that aliens landed on Earth millions of years ago and left a group of observers behind to keep track of Earth's inhabitants. Over the course of time these observers forgot their mission and slowly evolved to the point that they became indistinguishable from ordinary Earth creatures. Now the aliens have come back to save their comrades from the plans of an evil scientist, but to their dismay, they find that their comrades have lost all of their knowledge and common sense in the course of becoming what we know today as sheep. The aliens quickly round up a group of earthling candidates to rescue their brethren, and you assume the role of one of these four different herder characters: Bo Peep, Adam Half Pint, Motley, and Shep. Each character has slightly different herding attributes, but each character's mission is to round up as many sheep as possible and guide them carefully to safety through each level.
Each of the seven worlds in the game consists of four levels, and you can choose which of the four types of sheep to rescue on each level: pastoral, factoral, long wool, and neo genetics. Each type of sheep has unique attributes that govern its reaction to herding and its environment. To complete a level, a minimum number of sheep must be rescued in the given amount of time. The levels begin with a base group of sheep; in the beginning this number is fixed, and depending on your success in the levels, the number can increase, which in theory should make it easier to rescue the minimum number of sheep required.
You control the herder, using the keyboard, mouse, or joystick. When you use the mouse control, a small white dot, which is essentially the herder's target, appears on the screen. The herder will run after this dot, slowly if the dot is close by and faster if it is farther away. The effect is as if you had a rubber band attached from the dot to the herder and used it to drag the character around the screen. The sheep react to the herder much like opposing magnets react to each other. If the herder runs at them quickly, they run away, but the herder can also creep slowly to get closer without frightening the herd. Each sheep acts as an individual unit, and while they are primarily social creatures, they can easily get detached from the group and will require rounding up. In addition to their basic herding ability, herders can pick up sheep and throw them a short distance, shout at sheep to make them scatter, and gather power-ups such as radios and throbbing hearts to make the sheep act differently.
The levels are built with progressively more difficult traps, enemies, and puzzles. Some traps and enemies merely stun or flip over sheep, while others can flatten, blow up, or electrocute them. The herders aren't immune to these dangers, but they are indestructible, so a trap that would kill a sheep will only stun the herder. It is certainly possible to safely guide the sheep past all these dangers, but the combined effect of using a rubber-band control scheme to magnetically repel a group of sheep and ending up with the required number of sheep within the allotted time limit often makes the game very frustrating. At some points in the game you'll feel as though you are an unpaid babysitter looking after a large number of mischievous toddlers, and you might wonder whether there isn't something better you could be doing with your time.
The three difficulty levels exponentially increase the difficulty of the game by raising the number of sheep required for each level while at the same time reducing the time limits. This makes even the medium difficulty setting very challenging and the hard setting all but impossible in the later levels.
The graphics used in each level are bright and cheery, and they tie in well with the theme of the particular world they belong to. Completing each world rewards you with a short rendered cutscene that depicts one part of the sheep's long journey. These video sequences are well designed and produced, and they add an entertaining story that ties together the different worlds. The music and sound effects used in the game are less impressive and can quickly become repetitive, especially after you replay the same level a number of times, which is all but inevitable if you plan to complete the level.
It's clear that a great deal of effort went into the design of the levels and cutscenes. Each level has a great sense of creativity in its wide variety of devious traps, all built according to the theme of the world. Horses kick sheep across the screen in the rural Polygon Farm, archers pin sheep to targets in the medieval Village Fete, and giant robotic transistors slice and dice sheep (in a cartoonlike, nonviolent way) inside a giant computer in Lost in Space. The cutscenes are short, but they're entertaining and effectively tell the story of the sheep without narration.
All of the game's good qualities cannot completely overcome a few basic flaws. While the innovative game mechanics are challenging and fun at first, they quickly become frustrating where precise or fast control is needed. Sure, precise control isn't a realistic expectation to have when dealing with real-life sheep, but real-life sheep never have to deal with cauldrons full of acid, midget spacemen with laser guns, or fire-breathing monsters. What makes the game most frustrating is that while the levels in Sheep are somewhat similar to those in a platform action game, the control scheme prohibits you from directly controlling the subjects as you normally would in such a game.
Another disappointing element in the game is the level requirements. The scoring is already set up to give you bonus points for every sheep rescued, as well as bonus points for leftover time. Either one of these should have been enough of an incentive for you to finish the level as quickly and completely as possible without having to resort to both minimum sheep requirements and time limits.
Sheep is a deceptively difficult game. The cute graphics, cartoon humor, and unique game mechanics are appealing, and players who have an above-average resistance to frustration will enjoy playing the game's many challenging and interesting levels, as will those players who are looking for a twist on the traditional platform puzzle-action game. Otherwise, players who don't appreciate being frustrated can save themselves a great deal of hair pulling and head shaking by avoiding Sheep altogether.