An ironically solid tilt platformer
Release date: Nov 30, 2012 (AU, EU), TBA (US) Platform: Wii U
The opening moments of Puddle promise subtle jazz and believable environments, as you tilt the Wii U’s gamepad to rotate the gravity of the world and spill a cup full of coffee. After that coffee falls however so does the facade of normalcy. Jazz gives way to an energetic electro score and Puddle’s gameplay picks up to match.
French developer Neko’s physics-based platformer follows the abstract and interconnected stories of a series of different liquids – from water to weedkiller to ‘biological residue’ – as it makes its way through varied environments. The specific properties of the liquid and the makeup of the environments are intimately tied – for example water evaporates in fire, so the water stages largely have you dodging fire. The goal of most levels is to make it to the end in as fast a time as possible with as much liquid as possible, and it’s often a lot trickier than it seems. Levels are broken up by several scenes that surprise you by switching up the objectives – for example by asking you convert as much water as you can into steam to bust a water heater.
Puddle does a remarkable job of affecting you to become invested in the plight of your liquid, which isn’t really endearing in any way except for the fact that you’re tasked with its care. The fact that you play the part of an omnipotent manipulator of the world – turning the gamepad this way and that to pour the water in either direction – rather than playing the part of the water itself lends to this feeling of responsibilty. There were many ‘oh no!’ moments as my carefully shepherded liquid plummeted towards doom after an error on my part, although in most cases the liquid was not exactly grateful of my harried attempts to keep it from harm (I’m looking at you, nitroglycerine).
The liquid itself moves with a believable weight and momentum, albeit with markedly low-gravity physics and a hollywood slow-motion vibe. The physics are really the star of the show here and they’re something you have to be constantly mindful of, as the more water you’re moving the more force and momentum it’s going to carry. The sound design is very entertaining too, with splash, drip and pour effects that I’m sure will lead to many trips to the bathroom. It’s difficult to describe in words exactly how much fun it is to gain momentum down a slope and jump your puddle of water in a majestic arc across a dangerous pit of fire, to have it splash apart into particles on the other side and gradually recombine as you push towards the next obstacle, but you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s pretty exhilarating. Any misbehaviour by the liquid is solely down to you as the controller of gravity.
The smoothness of the experience – and the quality of the tilt-control – leaves the impression that Puddle may have been concieved specifically for Wii U’s gamepad, though of course it wasn’t. The game won critical praise when it was unveiled at GDC’s Independent Gaming Festival in 2010, and went on to be published this year by Konami for various platforms. The Wii U version is the first I’d personally played of Puddle, so I can’t speak to how it compares, but I can say that it feels very much at home on Nintendo’s system, with nothing out of place to indicate it wasn’t designed from the ground up to be there.
One of the few complaints I could level against this game is that the difficulty is very inconsistent. Often I found I could breeze through a level or two with a new liquid before being thoroughly punished by a crazy scenario I wasn’t ready for. When this game spikes it spikes hard, and the problem is only compounded by the lack of a checkpoint system. Latter stages are quite long and to get almost to the end only to have to start over is quite painful. Challenge is of course a very welcome aspect to precision platforming games, yet it needs to be carefully handled to keep from slipping into frustration territory. Thankfully it always feels like a failing on your part, not that the game is being unfair, and difficulty issues are largely addressed by the ‘whinge’ system. You can choose to whinge about up to four stages, meaning you’ll skip them entirely without having to pass them. If you want more whinges, you’ll need to go back and pass those stages you couldn’t get through earlier.
The game very occasionally dips below what otherwise appears to be a steady 60 frames per second, and Puddle is a great looking game on Wii U. The varied environments each bring their own flair and style to the levels, and a couple of the fluid varieties have really nice effects, adding up to a pretty experience both on the big screen and on the gamepad’s LCD. Speaking of the gamepad, there is an option to play the game entirely on the device without the television at all, which is great if you want to get in some platforming while somebody else is watching Hogan’s Heroes, but the 90° tilt limit means using the TV makes for a less awkward experience. Solely using the gamepad somehow made me feel as if the screen should be able to tilt all the way around, which of course it can’t. There’s also the welcome option to use the analog stick or ZR/ZL triggers to rotate the world, but unless it’s an accessibility issue tilt control is by far the most intuitive option.
Puddle offers a large amount of content for its reasonable price, as you push many different fluids through varied environments including laboratories, sewers, a greenhouse and even a human body. I did feel however as if the game overstayed its welcome a bit, falling back on the same mechanics maybe once or twice too many times, despite the frequent changes in liquid and environment. This is a game that’s probably best played several levels at a time over a long period, and will definitely run a bit long for an extended sitting. If you get to the end of the story and still want more, the game offers a gold / silver / bronze rating for each level that takes into account your time and the amount of liquid left by the end. Some of the levels are downright diabolical if you’re aiming for gold. There are also challenges for most stages, which function exactly like achievements or trophies, plus the inclusion of worldwide and friend-only leaderboards for competitive types.
Like Flower before it, Puddle is a lesson both in applying satisfying and non-frustrating tilt controls to a core mechanic and in creating a mimetic bond between the player and an ordinarily non-sentient force. Unfortunately it doesn’t manage to maintain this high-note the entire way through, but it is still a unique and very entertaining experience. If you’ve played Puddle before, the fact that’s it’s now playable via the Wii U gamepad may not be enough to sway you into re-purchasing. However for newcomers to the game who are looking for a fun and unique experience on their new system, the hours of platforming goodness to be found in Puddle are entirely solid, despite consisting almost completely of liquid.