Review: Puddle

Puddle

Sloshing liquid around has lately become as popular a videogame pastime as blasting zombies or downloading Call of Duty DLC. Controlling the slippery physics of H20 (and other stuff) factors into everything from Mercury and Fluidity to Where’s My Water? and Feed Me Oil.

Add Puddle to the growing pool of liquid-based physics puzzlers. It’s one of those GDC student showcase winners that spun its success with the judges into a commercial product. It doesn’t take long to understand why. Puddle’s mix of shadowy, neon visuals and scientific principles mix as easily as a packet of Berry Blue-flavored Kool-Aid dissolves into a pitcher of cold agua.

You can probably guess the drill: In each level, you’re charged with guiding some kind of liquid substance from Point A to Point B. The control scheme couldn’t be more minimalist. You use the right and left flipper buttons (or a PlayStation Move controller) to tilt the environment, causing whatever liquid you’re rocking—sometimes water, sometimes liquid fertilizer, sometimes nitro glycerin or molten lava—to slither through a range of bedeviling environments—sometimes a garden, sometimes the human body, sometimes tubes and pipes. Hazards naturally abound, from flames that evaporate precious water droplets to glowing, malevolent Venus flytraps that snap and turn your neon-yellow fertilizer into black sludge. Navigating the maze requires maintaining a certain amount of fluid to open hatches, flip switches and avoiding failing the level, so each drop becomes precious as the level tilts onward.

Beyond the earliest puzzles, it’s rare to succeed on your first try, because the camera unfairly conceals upcoming obstacles and hazards until your liquid stream is hurtling wildly down a slope or around a curve, and you’ve accumulated way too much momentum to do anything but crash and start over. Always proceeding slowly is no good either, as you’ll need enough speed to jump gaps and slither across flaming sections unscathed (or, more accurately, unevaporated.) Yes, science is supposed to be about trial and error–and there’s a palpable sense of accomplishment when you’ve navigated a liquid blob through a huge electrical field in zero gravity conditions– but there’s several feet of liquid frustration to wade through in order to get there.

Some of the puzzles are almost sadistically devious–for instance, the one that ends the first section, in which you’re expected to roll water up both sides of an enclosed container to activate a pair of switches, then roll the water up the wall again to flip droplets through the air and into a newly opened narrow escape tube in the middle, all before a timer resets the whole thing. Did I mention that the sides of the escape tube are lined with flame?

Okay, so it’s hard. Often brutally hard. Puddle tosses players a bone in these situations by offering them two “whines”—i.e. chances to skip a level and move to the next one. But when you fail a level after using them up, the game instructs you to “go back and finish a level you skipped, so you can snivel some more.” Call me thin-skinned, but in an otherwise immersive game that features an absolute bare minimum of communication, a touch like this comes off as smug, snooty and condescending. Of course, the student developers attended the French school ENJMIN, so perhaps that explains it. /cultural stereotype off/

It’s a minor annoyance, yes, but try to imagine if a game like Limbo or Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, two examples of quiet indie games that share pieces of Puddle’s shadow-based visual aesthetic, had suddenly flashed the words “You’re an Idiot” on the screen after your second or third untimely death. Basically, a low-grade design decision ends up tainting what could have been an entirely sweet drink of puzzle-based gaming. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it definitely leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

TryIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Wildly creative and diverse environments always keep things fresh
+ Water-based physics really is fun

Cons:
- The game’s camera is often your biggest obstacle
- Condescending undertone taints the proceedings

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360 via XBLA; also available for PS3 via PSN
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Neko Entertainment
Release Date: XBLA – 1/25/2012; PSN – 1/31/2012
Genre: Puzzle
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.