Not Just Another Drop in the Bucket
Puddle is one of those rare gems that comes along only a handful of times in each console generation: simple in its concept, masterful in its design, brilliant in its execution. Neko Entertainment picked up and perfected this unique puzzler, in which players must manipulate the world to guide a puddle of liquid through each level, a concept as deceptively simple as it is deviously challenging. As you take control and take charge of your puddle of liquid, you’ll often find yourself wincing in heartfelt anguish everytime a drop gets lost, obsessively jamming the retry button again and again – Puddle creates a parent/liquid relationship unheard of in gaming history.
What starts out as a simple plastic cup of coffee quickly, with the player’s help, turns into a jaw-dropping journey through a mix of eclectic and gorgeous environments, all from the minimalist perspective of a few drops of moisture. Players will be tasked with surviving scalding heat, freezing blasts of air, and bolts of electricity threatening to vaporize the precious liquid. Traps and obstacles galore await as you navigate slimy sewer tunnels, through the outdoor lushness of a plant nursery, along electric wires, laboratories – even make your way along arterial passageways through the human body and travel into outer space aboard a rocketship! Suffice it to say, most games can only dream of portraying the kind of amazing journey that Puddle offers.
Simple Is as Simple Does
And simple is what Puddle‘s mechanics are all about. The entire game is controlled through the left and right triggers, with each one tilting the game world approximately 15-20º into the corresponding direction. While the goal is to get as much of the liquid as possible across the finishing line, players are never in direct control of it, instead having to master the physics of inertia, friction and momentum to manipulate the fluid to their wills. These simple techniques, that are at the heart of everyday life, ingrained in our every motion, come together seamlessly and effortlessly in gameplay, and easily carry the game. In fact, they create what may well be one of the most challenging experiences in gaming; no made-up laws here, no double jumps or speed power-ups. Just physics, recreated faithfully as never before, and you can’t fight with Mother Nature!
But it’s more than just the laws of physics that the developers nailed. The true-to-life fidelity displayed by the various forms of fluid in the game is quite simply unheard of! Water will bond together if given the opportunity, but move it too fast, or cling precariously to the edge of a precipice, and it will split apart into individual pearls of liquid, which each respond to movement depending on their individual sizes and volumes. And as if the impressive fluid motion wasn’t enough, Neko Entertainment frequently switch up the type of liquid being used, each with its own true-to-life properties. In the course of the game, players will take control of not only H2O, but plant fertilizer, trinitrate, molten metal, a rat’s globuled innards, and other substances.
But Puddle takes things even one step further. Interspersed between the “get the liquid from point A to point B” stages are courses that introduce novel liquid-related gameplay concepts, usually just for the duration of one stage. Notable experiences include having to maneuver a snow globe through a sewer system without rupturing it and losing the valuable liquid contained within; controlling a fire truck attempting to extinguish a blaze; and swinging a flaming bucket to ignite water sprinklers, creating liquid for the next stage. In fact, each leg of the journey, starting with coffee escaping from a plastic cup, is a study in cause and effect, one fluid completing its journey to send the next on its way, culminating in a grand finale in a fission reactor.
The Refreshing Sights and Sounds of Water
Graphically, Puddle employs a heavy use of foreground silhouettes, much like games such as Limbo. The backgrounds, though not serving any purpose beyond providing a backdrop setting, are generally lush and pleasant, using muted, cool colors, and combine with the foreground to create sharp sceneries for your adventures. Specific stages adopt unique styles to complement the atmosphere, such as entire areas viewed in infrared in the “Foundry”, or a washed-out, monochrome X-ray look for the entirety of the “Human Body” level. The effect of controlling ink as it flows around a porous sheet of paper in the “Director’s Chart” stage was also impressive, if for no other reason than that it was only employed for one brief stage to better serve the story.
Sound design, too, was kept as simple as possible. Overall, each separate level of the game had its own musical theme, with slight variations in rhythm or intensity depending on the situation within each stage. The pulsing beating in the “Tension” stage fit the theme of coursing through the body’s organ system incredibly well, and as it ramped up, so did my own blood pressure. Slight touches were present in many other levels, as well: the music changed dynamically as the leaves fell off the bush in “Green Flow”, and the crescendoing theme of “Fission” as you moved closer and closer to the center of the core was quite energizing. In short, the game maintains the same elegant simplicity in its presentation and style that it employs in all areas of its design, and is often nothing short of breathtaking.
The Final Verdict
Puddle will appeal to any gamer who isn’t a slave to the twitch impulse that fast-paced online fragfests rely upon. (As my ten-year-old son said, upon seeing Puddle: “This is a game?!”) While ultimately a mash-up of puzzle game and platformer, Puddle has enough charm to give everyone something to love. The game provides an immense challenge – it wasn’t uncommon for me to expend upwards of thirty, forty, even fifty attempts at some of the later stages -, cool graphics, and at every turn provides new water-cooler moments with its continuous arc, amazingly realistic physics, and creative places it’ll take you to. In sheer terms of unforgettable gameplay experiences, this may be one to remember, even though the year has just begun, as an early contender for game of the year.