Posted by Mike Mason
Soak it up
Puddle was originally released on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network earlier this year to decent reviews, and after looking at feedback from the previous versions Neko Entertainment has released what it claims to be the best edition of the game at Wii U launch. The Fluidity (Hydroventure)-like game isn't quite a super soaker, but it's certainly worth a paddle.
The aim of this 2D puzzler is to tilt environments left and right to send blobs, globs and pools of liquid of various viscosity dribbling towards the end of each level, using momentum to move forward and carefully anticipating when to change direction. What could have been a fairly cut-and-dry concept, however, is brought alive by regular sharp splashes of creativity and a reluctance to rest on one style of play.
It's structured to tell a vague story while giving the developer ample room to play with different movement types. In the beginning stages you might resemble the standard drippings of a tap, but soon you're funnelled through laboratories, the human body, sewers, rockets and more, your liquid morphing to fit these settings as you go. Throughout Puddle you play as explosive gel that cannot be moved too quickly, float through zero gravity, blast your way through plants as a drop of weedkiller and more. Plus, how many games let you roll around as a disgusting mess of melted rat goop?
Liquids change every few stages, which means that just as you get fully comfortable with one you're shuttled off to the next. It's a bittersweet structure: you just want to spend more time with some of the forms, but simultaneously you don't have to deal with the ones that you don't like for too long. The shifts are very organic, with the settings swapped during short but stylish cut scenes that help to give some semblance of a narrative; it makes Puddle feel like more of a journey than you'd expect of such a game.
The instructions for each liquid or level are not always so clear, however, and there are a couple that we only got to grips with purely by trial and error. With so many differently controlling objects at play throughout, the tutorial elements are underwhelming; information about the properties of each liquid is placed on the loading screens, which are quite easy to skip right past, and some mechanics are introduced via in-level images that are better at looking good than explaining things properly.
The challenge bar is set quite high: Puddle isn't a long game at only four or five hours, but it can get really tough and there are several levels that took us more than a few attempts to complete. Stages are a couple of minutes long at most, and while they're well-designed for the most part there are some that are overly vicious. There aren't any checkpoints either; you wouldn't think that any would really be needed with levels so short, but there are certainly a few where they would have been very useful. It's frustrating to plop about for two minutes through a nasty course only to evaporate at the final hurdle.
There are a couple of harsh difficulty spikes halfway through that attribute to this, but generally it ramps up at a good pace. If you're having real trouble with a level you're able to skip it by using a Whine. You can Whine your way out of four levels over the course of the campaign; if you end up stuck again after using all four, you have to go back and complete a previously skipped course without complaint to re-gain a Whine. It's quite a clever way to stop you passing over loads of levels, though only having four Whines seems quite arbitrary; limiting the function in such a way could be irritating to less experienced players.
There are three control schemes to muddle through Puddle with. You should probably outright disregard the default motion controls, as unfortunately they're simply not very good. Technically your movements are tracked accurately, but the setup doesn't jive well with the limited amount that levels can be tilted. Stages can generally only be moved within a small range, yet the motion controls annoyingly imply much freer movement than is actually available.
Using the left stick or, better yet, the ZL-ZR triggers makes for a far superior experience, both more comfortable and better matched to the actions on screen. The shoulder buttons are our preferred option by a good margin, offering more than enough precision to get you out of the trickiest of ditches and over the fieriest of pits.
It's not quite as smooth as Fluidity; though they're based on a similar concept, their approaches are quite unique. Puddle feels a little more restrictive: its tilt angles are less lenient, the view is more zoomed in and the action is slower. It does have its own advantages, however, such as its chunky, clear visuals that meld realism and cartoon; polar opposite to Fluidity's purely cartoonish looks, but impressive in a different way.
There's a clean mixture of silhouetted walls and clearly marked hazards, and the number of different locations gives rise to several impressive styles. We're particularly fond of the jaunt across drawn upon graph paper later on, and there's a fantastic pixel world that should appeal to any die-hard Nintendo fan. The soundtrack features drum-heavy electronic music that's more atmospheric than hummable, though often it's happy to take a back seat to let the ambient sound effects take over. There are satisfying sploshes as you move about levels, and the menus feature some nice watery plinks and plops, too.
It's also absolutely perfect for Off-TV play on the GamePad. Both TV and GamePad mirror the same action, so you can easily dive in without ever switching on the big screen. Everything scales down brilliantly for the controller screen, and though there's some noticeable blurriness around edges — similar to the reds in New Super Mario Bros. U — it doesn't detract from play. We'd say Puddle is actually best played on the GamePad alone, though it's definitely worth having a gander at the TV from time to time to check out the bright and bold assets in glorious HD.
Online leaderboards and an achievements system are also built in, which offer some incentive for repeat play. All your performances are timed and tallied together to give you a global time score, and you can either view everybody in the world's prowess or just your friends'. There are medals to collect for each stage on top of this, so you might complete a level but you're not really done with it until you've grabbed all the gold.
Puddle is another strong contender for your digital money in the beginning days of Wii U's eShop. It falters when it comes to explaining all of its elements, occasionally stumbles with difficulty spikes and its motion control scheme is best left ignored, but look past these flaws and you'll find a creative, smart puzzler that flows pretty well while offering a fair amount of variety and replay value.