It's hard not to like a game like Puddle. A cool little downloadable title that was first thought up by a bunch of students and then picked up by Konami for a full release; it's a game with the best of intentions written all over it. Unfortunately, while I say it's hard not to like, you'll succeed in doing that just the same, trust me.
Puddle's concept is given away by its names. You control a puddle of liquid that you must try to lead to the end goal while losing as little mass as possible. You don't actually control the puddle, but rather the tilt of the world around it; one button for leaning left, one button for leaning right, and that's all you'll ever need (or at least all you'll ever get). The variety of obstacles, objectives, and different liquids in the game is quite commendable. At times I moved Trinitrate (an explosive liquid apparently) around a science lab, trying not to jostle it too much; molten metal, which had to be moved quickly before it solidified; and an unknown substance inside a human being's blood stream. There's certainly no lack of effort from the developers when it comes to playing around with the core gameplay mechanism, but it all comes to naught. When it comes down to it, Puddle just isn't much fun to play.
Trying to control a liquid which has its own physics and a minimal tendency to stay together results in a mechanic that can feel really luck-based at times. Most of the levels need only a small amount of the liquid you started with to cross the finishing line, so it's not a big worry to lose some here or there, but it's really tough to get through obstacles when you can't even keep the whole puddle together. The most damning part of the game has to be the camera. It's set pretty close and you have no way to change it, so a lot of the time you'll have no idea how much momentum you require until you finally see the danger and head right into it. The camera also has no way to pan out if your puddle breaks up and will sometimes get confused and follow the smaller portion, or even focus in-between the two puddles so you can't see anything at all. All in all it makes the game a test of memorization for any obstacle that requires more speed than a cautious crawl.
So it's a game of memorization. Well, that might not be too bad if the checkpoints are many, but sadly that isn't the case. Puddle is broken up into levels each of about a minute or so, and if you lose more liquid than allowed at any point you have to restart from the beginning. There's even an overly long load screen to punish you for your failure. It's unfortunate, because when the game commences it's initially both enjoyable and interesting; just playing around with liquids without too much worry. When Puddle introduces you to a new liquid it goes easy on you and you can appreciate the physics and ingenuity of the new game mechanics. It's when the obstacles become more exacting and the precise momentum required becomes more stringent that things get repetitive in a hurry. Thankfully, you are given 2 level skips that you can get back by completing the level later on, but sadly it won't work for the final level of the game as you have to go that one alone.
There's actually a lot to love about Puddle from a presentational aspect. As I mentioned before there are a number of different environments and some of them are quite striking graphically, like working your way through a human's digestive track or controlling water through a hand-drawn schematic of a rocket's inner workings. Each environment and liquid comes with its own quirks, such as consistency and surface tension, so it's fun to see what new things Puddle is going throw at you as you work your way through the game. There's no voice acting and the story is really just a seemingly random set of interlinking events involving different liquids, but the music always fits the situation even if it isn't a toe-tapping masterpiece.
Puddle took me 5 hours to work through, and if you love the gamepay there's some replay value in the form of achievements/trophies that require you to go above and beyond merely completing the game, grades for each level based on the time it takes you to complete as well as the amount of liquid you had left over, and a small laboratory mode where you can set things up and just play around with the liquids in a tiny room. It would actually offer fairly impressive lasting appeal if the core gameplay were more enjoyable.
I wanted to love Puddle. It's filled with scientific and technical references that made the scientist in me elated, and even presents its final score as an equation based on time and remaining liquid, but when it comes down to it, it just isn't fun to play on a consistent basis. I love the idea, the effort, and the presentation, I just wish I loved playing it.
This review is based on a digital copy of Puddle for the PS3, purchased by the writer.