Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed) | PS3
Developer: Neko Entertainment
Puddle began life as a student project that won big at GDC's Independent Gaming Festival in 2010. With that particular accolade under their belt, Neko Entertainment set about transforming Puddle into a fully-fledged title and, with the aid of Konami, have released it on Microsoft's Arcade service and the Playstation Network. Has it fulfilled the potential hitherto only glimpsed?
The answer is 'yes' and 'no'. Conceptually, Puddle is an intriguing take on the physics-based puzzler; a hallmark of intelligent level design and rewarding gameplay. In reality, the positives are drowned in a sea of frustrations and what-could-have-beens.
In Puddle, you are tasked with guiding a series of different liquids (some reactive, some volatile) through a gauntlet of obstacles in order to reach a funnel to the next area. As anyone that's had hands-on time with water will tell you, this is easier said than done, with liquid by definition doing everything in its power to avoid sticking together. The game takes place in a series of imaginative environments, from a beaker-infested laboratory to the hazardous tree-canopy of your back garden. The kicker? You're only allowed to use the power of gravity to help you.
The left and right triggers act to tilt the two-dimensional plane on-screen, causing the liquid to fall, slide, and slop about as you see fit. The analog input means you can dictate how far the map tilts, allowing for more tentative movement, or more violent jumps, and the designers have made sure that you'll be needing to judge either of those means to perfection.
Alarm bells start to ring as soon as you open up a new game. Puddle loads with the speed and ferocity of a trackless steam-train, with even simple level-restarts forcing a thirty second loading screen upon the hapless player. This wouldn't be cause for such concern were it not for the fact that Puddle is an extremely difficult game: not something that has gone unnoticed by the developers, who are quite content to pile challenge on top of challenge until some segments in the game seem like an exercise in sadism.
And when you do inevitably fall flat, you'll be forced to restart the level from the beginning - completely lacking in checkpoints as Puddle is - after a frustratingly lengthy loading screen has mocked you by pointing out exactly how many retries you've employed so far. Even when you do triumph, your sense of achievement will quickly be dulled by a rating system that judges you on how much liquid you've managed to retain (little), and how much time it took (lots). Clearly intended to add replayability value, the rating instead just serves to detract from the joy of finishing a particularly trying level.
To compound matters is the fact that, as mentioned before, liquid has a tendency to do its own thing every now and again. This causes problems when even travelling in a straight line causes your nitroglycerin to separate in the middle, before hitting the bottom of the slope and impacting itself with enough force to detonate the entire pool, bringing about a torrent of bile from the player and necessitating yet another restart.
The camera doesn't help either, choosing (often arbitrarily) which segment of liquid to track, and leaving the others to their own devices. The problem of course, is that leaving any liquid off-screen for prolonged periods of time causes it to evaporate and either counts against your overall score, or outright fails you and, you guessed it, forces a restart.
That's not to say that Puddle is an abject failure by any means. As demonstrated in the screenshots, it is beautiful to behold, with a distinctive art style and some quirky level animations elevating it far beyond what could have been an extraordinarily dull-looking game. The soundtrack is suitably soothing, accompanying the serene tilt-and-slide of the liquid perfectly. The physics, too, are perfect to a fault, with aforementioned 'separation issues' both realistic and frustrating.
And for those willing to stick around, there's plenty of game to see, not least because of the challenge presented by each area. If the sizeable campaign isn't enough, there's also a 'laboratory' mode, which offers up a number of unlockable objects to play around with in an open area to your heart's content. It's a nice addition, but one that will only be of any use to the most hardcore of Puddle's audience.
- Beautiful to look at
- Good value, with plenty to keep the dedicated gaming
- Excellently-realised physics
- Deeply frustrating gameplay
- Lack of checkpoints
- Lengthy and abundant loading screens
Puddle works beautifully as a concept. Unfortunately, the truth is that by its very nature it serves only to frustrate in practice. Compounded by lengthy loading times and an infuriating lack of checkpoints, but placated somewhat by the beautiful visual style and the satisfying physics model that occasionally gels perfectly with the level design, Puddle might reward the dedicated, but will prove to be an exercise in tedium for most.