Making a Splash
We’ve all played your physics-based games in the past. Your sports games with realistic ball movement and speed. Your shooters that feature unparalleled ragdoll animation, with dead opponents flying in great wide arcs through gaming space. Platformers that let you play with and manipulate the pull of gravity, and puzzlers that let you bend the laws of space itself, traveling seamlessly from one point to another through neon-colored ovals of energy.
But in the arena of physics-based video game experiences, one challenger shows up and proceeds to mop the floor with his opponents’ shockingly realistic lifelessly limp and unresponsive corpses; that game is Neko Entertainment’s Puddle, and in terms of sheer difficulty, it truly separates the men from the boys.
It’s no accident that even back in January of this year, in my Puddle review, I was already comfortable with suggesting a possible contender for Game of the Year. While attempting to best Puddle is surely the cause of many a gray hair and has likely shaved days, if not weeks, off my life, the game constantly delivers a true sense of satisfaction as you advance; you don’t so much “beat a level” as “conquer the elemental mysteries of liquid”.
Nature’s Little Helper
The premise of Puddle is deceptively simple. Navigate an amount of liquid through a real-world environment, circumventing hazards, and bringing as much as possible across the finish line, and onto the next level. Along the way, you’ll need to keep your liquid from falling prey to being evaporated, frozen, split apart into tiny droplets, congealed, or any number of other horrific “deaths”.
The trick is that you’re never directly controlling the liquid itself; rather, you’ll be able to tilt the gameworld to the left and right, causing the liquid to follow gravity’s pull downward. Keeping in mind the principles of friction and momentum, and applying proper degrees of counter-pull and acceleration requires a level of finesse virtually unheard of in other games. Jumping gaps, maneuvering pipeworks, avoiding spikes and heat traps will teach players to fine-tune their control techniques to a minute degree.
But, oh, it gets better! After a few initial stages – just when you’re starting to get the hang of things – Puddle throws a few curveballs your way. Think you’ve become an expert at steering your water droplets towards the safe zone? Well, try a denser, heavier liquid on for size. Think you prayed for a jump button in your old-school Zelda games? Try bringing a slimy globule full of rat innards and viscera safely across a spike-filled pit. Or how about navigating a water-filled snow globe safely through a treacherous sewer system, always being mindful that any sudden impact or ever-so-slight drop will cause the glass to shatter bit by bit and lose its precious liquid. Perhaps you’ve become overly dependent on your sense of sight; in that case, take on the challenge of safeguarding a molten bit of steel on its way through a refinery. In a heated, molten state, it gives off a bit of light, but the longer it stays away from viable heat sources, the more does it harden and become sluggish, even as its innate glow subsides, quickly leaving you in total darkness with a cold chunk of metal on your hands.
The only aspect of Puddle more exhaustive than its creativity that never puts you through the same experience twice is its sheer difficulty. I had to attempt some challenges, like sending a minecart on its way along a track, at least fifty times apiece until I finally succeeded. Players will certainly have their work cut out for them with the previous example. Send the cart careening too fast, and it’ll collide with a wall and shatter; inch it forward too slowly, and the molten metal contained inside will harden, causing you to have to restart; get careless on ramps and inclines, and your precious cargo will be catapulted over the sides of the cart and into the air, forever lost to you. It’s truly a balancing act of the highest caliber.
The game’s developers hit a sweet spot with its length. There are plenty of varied challenges to overcome, but it is possible to persevere and reach the end. Though I certainly improved during my playthrough of Puddle, this isn’t the kind of game that could ever be mastered to the point of perfection; nature is unpredictable and impossible to control or bend to your liking. Replaying it now, or even as soon as I’d beaten it, would have given me just as much of a challenge as somebody brand new to the experience. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what makes Puddle truly tough as nails!