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Puddle game review

Back in 2010, six French students won the GDC Student Showcase award for the liquid physics puzzle game Puddle.  Konami later picked up the title, and after development by Neko Entertainment, Puddle was released on both the Xbox Live Arcade and PSN a couple of weeks back.

The premise of the game is straight forward.  The player guides liquids through hazardous environments, while trying not to lose so much volume that you have to start over.  In the early levels, this means navigating water through pipes filled with fire and heated surfaces that cause the water to evapourate.  In later levels, the liquid, now nitro glycerin, becomes a hazard, as not only will environmental obstacles destroy it, but move too fast, and you’ll end up blowing up.  To help you along, there’s a liquid gauge in the upper left hand corner that indicates both the amount of liquid left, and how much you need to complete the level. 

Controls are very straight forward on either the Xbox 360 or PS3, consisting of using the left and right triggers to rotate the environment.  The PS3 version of the game also allows the player to opt for either SIXAXIS or Move control, which I didn’t get a chance to test.  Controller play works well with the game, and the physics are spot on.  Rocking the environment back and forth yields a convincing feel of viscosity that is easy to grasp, but more challenging to master.

The game does mix up the goals from level to level as well.  In one early example of a boss fight, you’re controlling water trapped in a boiler.  Instead of trying to make it to the end intact, your goal is to set off the boiler so that the water will evapourate, all before the timer counts down to zero.  Finding just the right timing to hurl water onto the heating elements can be tricky.

There’s a wide variety of environments to play in, from a laboratory with lasers and fire traps to a forest of water-sucking plants.  Visually they strike a tone similar to games like Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, with blurred parallax scrolling backdrops causing the foreground to pop.  It’s a style that I’m particularly fond of, as it keeps the focus on the gameplay.  The soundtrack, with an almost calming ambiance that urges you to think of the flow, and suits the game to a tee.  One of my personal favourites eschews this style, instead presenting an X-Ray of a person drinking a glass of liquid, which then has to be guided through the human body.  I won’t spoil the ending on that.

Keeping in the chemical nature of the game, performance on each level is measured by a combination of speed and percentage of liquid that made it through the gauntlet.  You’ll be rated Gold, Silver, or Copper, represented by the periodic table symbols of Au, Ag and  Cu.  Besides the glory of getting Au, higher rankings also unlock items for the experiemental Laboratory, where you can play around with the physics properties in the game on your own terms.
Not all is perfect in Puddle though.  It is one of those games that you can expect to die in.

A lot.

That in its own right is perfectly fine.  The real frustration comes in the load time to get back to the beginning of the level.  While 7 seconds or so may not seem like a lot, cumulatively it makes for a less than ideal gaming experience.

Adding to the frustration is not knowing what is coming up around the next bend.  As you progress through a level, the liquid can become separated, and some amount may get left back around a previous bend.  If it straggles for too long, it’s gone for good, decreasing your overall level.  Combine this with the kinetic nature of the game, I found myself wishing for a birds eye view by the end of the second level.  While I don’t need to have the whole level splayed before me to dissect, a mechanism to zoom out even by 25 to 50% for a brief moment would have gone a long way in mitigating some unnecessary failures.

Ultimately, Puddle has a lot to offer someone looking for a unique puzzle game.  Just be warned that the extended load times in a very much ‘learn by death’ game might have you swearing at the screen more ofthen that you expect.  You can find it for $10 on PSN or 800 points on Xbox Live, and both versions have a demo, which I highly recommend taking for a spin first.

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