What starts as a game detailing the journey of a spilled cup of coffee tumbling down the drain of a laboratory sink culminates in a puzzle-ridden, physics-laden action/reaction quest through a collection of diverse (perhaps even grotesque) environments. Puddle’s structure is appropriately comparable to a Rube Goldberg machine; whatever you do in one area ultimately results in what you’ll be doing and controlling in the next.
As you transition from one area to another, you’ll be responsible for guiding a variety of different liquids through unforgiveable obstacle courses—and if you lose too much of your puddle on the way, you’ll be forced to navigate the level once more from the beginning.
The challenge isn’t simply a product of the environment, either. Each liquid has unique characteristics (called “particularity” in the game) that you’ll need to take into consideration as you make your way to the exit. For example, you’ll have to foster the symbiotic relationship between liquid fertilizer and plant bulbs if you want to escape the nursery. When you re-enter the lab, however, you’ll have to shift your attentiveness to the explosive properties of nitroglycerin—gain too much speed, and your puddle might explode.
You have to put a lot of consideration into movement, despite the fact that the game is controlled using just the ZL and ZR buttons. The option to use motion controls is there, but the reaction time is noticeably delayed, and the last thing you want when cruising through the fire-infested sewers of Puddle is a slow response to your split-second course correction. If you’re uncomfortable with the shoulder buttons or motion controls, you’ll also have the option to use an analog stick, which is just as serviceable as ZL and ZR. These two buttons will tilt the screen left and right, allowing you to adjust the speed and direction in which your liquid travels. This may seem limiting, and the physics can be occasionally frustrating, but the only real uncontrollable restraint you’ll encounter is the camera.
As your puddle is naturally or inevitably split up by its interaction with the environment, the camera seems to be at a complete loss as to what it should do. This was especially problematic in a couple of the Rocket-themed levels. In Propellant, a level that takes place in the rocket’s engine during liftoff, you’re tasked with preventing a small amount of dense, compact liquid propellant from falling to its fiery, evaporative death. While gradually making my way downwards, though, small drops were always getting stuck on the platforms above – and it was difficult to judge where the larger portion of the propellant was going to land. The same thing happened in the Sewers area, where I had to use air spouts to blow rat goo onto the mossy ceiling above (yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like). The thought put into the creative settings sometimes left me awe struck, and sometimes a little queasy.
I mentioned before that much of Puddle’s variation comes not only in the form of different liquids, but also in how these liquids interact with the environment. Mastering their properties, though, isn’t where the challenge ends. Each level offers something a little different, and since there’s very little carry-over from one level to another, Puddle relies heavily on trial and error for guidance. During segments of the Human Body portion of the game, I practically had to re-learn the controls—especially while guiding technetium solution through the human blood stream. Once I had a good handle on each level’s quirks, it was easy to get a good flow going, and the levels became much more enjoyable.
Although every area is either directly or indirectly connected to the last, each brings with it an entirely new set of challenges that are all too often abandoned in the wake of progression. This keeps Puddle from becoming too stagnant, but also fosters some feelings of inconsistency. Levels are short, but Challenges (Puddle’s answer to Achievements or Trophies) give them some replay value, and active Leaderboards mean that you have the opportunity to constantly fight for bragging rights.
There is a lot of variation in Puddle—but much like the object of its namesake, these experiences are shallow and spread thin over a wide area, so the game tends to dry up before you have time to soak it in. Its clever scenarios and tricky physics-based puzzle solving are its strongest points, but it fails to elaborate on its best ideas and often felt incomplete. If you’ve ever wanted to see a sewer rat dissolved by the mighty wrath of a scientist’s urine,though, then Puddle has something for you.
Food for Thought:
The Human Body portion of Puddle was uncomfortably real, perhaps even borderline voyeuristic. The heartbeat added to the natural tension and claustrophobia, and at times, I questioned whether or not this was actually someone’s body. I can only imagine what this could do for a Wii U iteration of Trauma Center…