XBLA Review: Puddle

Puddle could be titled after the tears you’ll shed playing it. It’s a clever physics based platformer in which you must guide various liquids from point A to B through increasingly devious levels. The game goes from challenging to frustratingly difficult within its first set of stages and never looks back. Most gamers will move onto something less painful before they beat the game, which is too bad because the concept is interesting and the fundamental gameplay is enjoyable. It had the potential to be better.

Ironically, Puddle has the simplest of control schemes. With the left and right trigger, you tilt the level and move the liquid. Those are the only two buttons you’ll ever use. The difficulty comes from punishing trial and error level design and the fact that you don’t have direct control over the liquid. If you tilt the level too much and the liquid goes off a ramp with too much momentum, it will fly into a conveniently placed patch of fire or something that will destroy the liquid. If you don’t tilt the level enough, most of the liquid won’t make it off the ramp. You have to get each step along the way just right in order to reach the exit. This involves lots of learning and memorization, as well as a bit of luck.

The goal is to reach the exit in the shortest time possible with the most amount of liquid still left over. Liquid is lost along the way due to hazards in the environment and the liquid getting split up and some getting left behind. A meter shows the minimum amount of liquid required to beat the level. Dip below that line and you have to start over from the beginning of the level. There are no checkpoints. At the end of the level, you receive a copper, silver, or gold medal based on speed and remaining liquid.

There is no story, nor does the game need one, but there should be some coherence and sense of what’s going on. The levels are tangentially linked by simple cutscenes and a general scientific theme, but none of it makes much sense. For instance, at the end of a set of stages titled Laboratory, you mix together a liquid and there is a brief cutscene that shows a silhouette of a human drinking it. The next set of stages takes place in the human body. The lack of a story is fine, but the game often forgets to relate essential information, such as what type of liquid you’re dealing with; I didn’t know I was working with nitroglycerine in the Laboratory levels until I was told in one of the all-too-frequent loading screens that nitroglycerine makes a sound when it’s about to explode. For that matter, does nitroglycerine make a sound as it’s about to explode? And why do Venus fly traps present a danger to lava???

But these odd quirks are forgivable. Again, Puddle’s biggest sin is extreme difficulty that is amplified by inexcusable technical shortcomings and design choices. The game knows it’s hard. If you fail a level, you’re given the option to “whine and skip” it. Unfortunately, you’re only allowed to skip a level twice throughout the entire game. To earn the privilege of skipping another level, you must first go back and beat one of the levels you previously skipped. A few more skips and checkpoints and perhaps the option to tackle levels out of order would have gone a long way toward making Puddle more approachable and less frustrating.

Worse, every time you fail a level, you’re forced to sit through a loading screen. Although these loading screens are brief, you are going to fail and see them a lot. I’m no programmer, but it doesn’t seem like Puddle is so complex a game that levels should have to be reloaded every time you fail. The levels are short enough and failure is so frequent that the loading screens become annoying and disrupt the flow of the game. And if you decide to restart a level before you officially fail, you’re inexplicably kicked out to the main menu and have to restart the game completely – with a loading screen in between, of course.

There are roughly 50 levels spread across eight sets of stages with different liquids and themes and very little to extend longevity. Only the truly bored and masochistic will go back to find hidden levels and earn gold medals and Achievements. Most people will give up long before even reaching the end. There are leaderboards, but no multiplayer or other online features. There is a mode actually titled Laboratory, which allows you to change the wallpaper of the main menu. Nobody will ever use it.

For something that started as a student project and evolved into an XBLA/PSN release, Puddle is impressive, but more frustrating than fun. The fundamental gameplay is a pretty cool idea, but the developers gleefully embraced sadistic level design and neglected to make simple choices that could help alleviate the pain. Puddle could be improved in a sequel with checkpoints, fewer loading screens, and a more gradual difficulty curve. This first effort is hard to recommend, even at $10. Listen to my whining and skip it.

Pros

• Simple control scheme means anyone can play.

• Interesting concept.

Cons

• Extreme difficulty means most people won’t want to play.

• Constant, inexcusable loading screens.

2/5

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Author: Jeff Derrickson View all posts by
Jeff Derrickson is a member of the Perfectly Sane Show and co-host of Movie Dudes. He studied English and mass media at Northeastern Illinois University.