Review: Puddle (Vita)

Puddle

Lao Tzu said that water is fluid, soft and yielding.  Though seemingly powerless, it can wear away the hardest stone which cannot yield.  That which is yielding can overcome that which is unyielding. 

The person who authored the Tao Te Ching over two and a half millennia ago probably did not play a lot of video games, but there is a certain requirement to go with the flow that he would have appreciated in the incarnation of Puddle on the Vita.  The Old Master might have been turned off by the scoring system and the idea of owning a portable entertainment device in general, but embracing the concept of yielding and being like water would have met with approval.

Puddle is a platform game with a few puzzle elements.  Instead of controlling a little Italian guy or the latest descendent of a long line of vampire hunters, players will “control” a puddle of liquid.  Quotes in that sentence are necessary because, unlike with the liquidy platformer Gish, movement is not accomplished by direct control.  Rather the world is tilted back and forth to cause the liquid to slide one way or the other, just like it would if you put a tablespoon of water on a plate and could move it around by rotating the plate.  Luckily the game is not as complicated as all that for the action is viewed from the side; a fluidic 2D game.  It is similar in concept to the PSP Mercury games, but the liquids in Puddle are far easier to manage as they only go to the left and right.

The basic goal of any given level is to get a minimum amount of liquid to the area or container labeled EXIT.  By tilting the world the puddle will eventually slide to the left or right, gaining momentum until it either hits an obstacle or is catapulted off a curved edge to land somewhere else.  There are a few control options–leaning the system back and forth with the gyroscope, tapping the rear touch pad, and using one of the analog sticks–but the shoulder buttons are the most precise.  Various obstacles will try to deter your path and either break up the liquid mass, making it more difficult to guide, or just destroy it (i.e. fire spots will evaporate water). 

Thankfully, most of the liquids tend to coalesce when near other smaller puddles.  However, when the puddle does get broken up, as it often will, the game’s camera does not pan out enough to allow you to easily guide the liquid back together.  This makes it very hard to get things back together to finish the level will all your juice.  On the other hand, if things get that screwed up, it is probably already impossible to finish without retrying.  Later levels can be quite hard and if one section of a run is not done perfectly, you’re going to have to try again, and again, as there are no checkpoints.

Many of the levels have a sharp look, and in my view, the absolute best set of levels are those contained within the human body (I don’t view that as a spoiler, all the settings are in the game’s description).  The liquid starts out as a cool, glowing substance entering the mouth, past the muscles at the back of the throat, descends through the esophagus and six levels later leaves…I will leave the specifics to your imagination.  The backgrounds look like moving, organic, black and white x-ray photos which really helps to bring out the color of the puddle and the obstacles in the various organs.  Some levels even mix up the gameplay by making the liquid a dark mass floating through the bloodstream, avoiding medicine and red blood cells, but moving the controller back and forth rapidly to pulsate the body’s pulse rate.  The rest of the game usually looks nice and varied with the various liquids pulsing with light and showing off vibrant colors, but the presentation peaks within the Human Body.

As a nice touch, while not always the same matter converted from one kind of liquid to another, between many of the levels are very short videos showing a casual relationship from one level to the next.  Some make sense, like the end of the human body level leading to the sewers one.  Some of them are a real stretch, like the ink’s level finality to creating a picture of a rocket ship to the next level being the rocket fuel in said space ship’s booster rockets, but the strive for context is appreciated.  There is a great amount of variety to the liquids and the level conditions imposed that make sense in the world.  Some liquids are super sticky and can actually flow down overhangs and walls, and sometimes the liquid is thin and very slick but in a container.  This game would have been easy to ignore if it was all water all the time, but variety saves it from the list of forgettable downloadables.  Watching the liquids slosh around and reform dynamically impressed me until the end.  I do not know if it would have been as impressive on an HDTV, but on the handheld it looks fantastic.  Maybe it is a good-looking game, or maybe I’m just not used to high quality graphics in the palm of my hand.

There is little replay value to the game other than wanting to go back and get a higher score to achieve Copper (Cu), Silver (Ag), and Gold (Au) ratings on each of the levels.  Score appears to be a function of how much liquid reaches the exit/goal combined with how much time was taken to complete the level.  After finishing a level there is a chart that pops up and it makes a little cartoon computer noise before your performance is measured on a graph with the values needed for the various metals.  Unfortunately the text on and near the graph is hard to see on the Vita’s screen.  Even if it was plainly visible, if I didn’t have to squint and hold the system six inches from my face to read it, the metrics involved and scores needed do not communicate just how much more goop needed to make it to the end or how much less time would have been needed.  It might as well just say “Try Harder”.

Two other things about this game need to be addressed.  After you fail a level a certain amount of times, an option of “Whine and Skip” is presented.  There are even a finite number of “Whines” that one can use to advance in the game.  This game, and games in general, do not need that kind of language.  Super Meat Boy is a platformer that prides itself on and is designed to be brutally difficult, played over and over again until you meet the insanely hard standard.  Playing that style of platformer is you Testing Your Might until you have the focus and willpower necessary to punch through the diamond block of its levels.  But, sometimes, you just want to play a game, not punch bricks for an hour.  I don’t need to be told that I am not tough enough to play a game.  I, or anyone else, that skips a level in a game like this obviously just wants to see all of the content.  Maybe coming back to the stupid atmosphere reentry level – where all the controls are reversed and it is possible to fail at just about every jump – at a time when I don’t feel like cracking my two-hundred dollar handheld in half (maybe to drain the liquid out to stomp on it, put it in a balloon and glue it to a mouse that might actually directly respond to my control inputs). 

I am not the type to skip ahead but I still don’t need the developer standing next to me taunting “Wanna whine about it?  Maybe get a note from your mommy saying you don’t have to try again?”  I cannot remember that kind of attitude in Super Meat Boy.  The pink bows in I Wanna Be The Guy’s Easy setting and Ninja Gaiden‘s Ninja Dog mode are close, but not as dickish as the skip feature being called whining.  I have no doubt that at least one person at Neko Entertainment argued that people would react negatively to that word choice.  If this site is any indication, that person was right.

You guys should listen to that voice more.

The other thing is that since this is a re-release of a downloadable game for the Vita, there is some question of which one you should get (provided you leapt to the conclusion that you would like to buy it at all).  In my experience I would have to recommend the Vita version all other things being equal.  Puddle is a game that can be played for five minutes and put down as the majority of the levels are easy to finish within that time frame.  (It might take you twenty times to finish, but the last run should last less time than it takes to boil an egg).  It is possible to play it for long sessions and the art variety makes it easier to stay entertained, but it is also a good game to have lying around, popping in and out of sleep mode between doing other things.  I have a hard time imagining myself sitting down on the couch, turning on a system and the TV, signing in, and then going through all of the menus necessary to arrive at the level menu to play a couple levels of Puddle.  It is a fine game, but it is not a particularly deep or engrossing one that I would think about playing on a home console.

All in all, my impression of the game was very positive.  It takes a simple idea and executes it in a variety of beautiful and interesting ways.  The scoring could have been clearer, but if you do not care about trophies and just want to see all of the interesting variations on the liquid theme and some of the more imaginative levels, then you should have a great time.  That is, if you can get past the unnecessarily mocking tone that accompanies failure.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Great use of color and lighting
+ Diverse levels with equally diverse mechanics

Cons:
- Word choices make the game seem less fun
- Fairly short and shallow

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: Neko Entertainment
Developer: Neko Entertainment
Release Date: 7/24/2012
Genre: Puzzle
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.