Puddle

So let’s talk about Super Meat BoySuper Meat Boy as a game is, to put it simply, sublime. With tight controls and a reliable physics system in place, levels filled with sawblades, lasers and demon hounds go from insurmountably overbearing to tightly crafted, manageably difficult experiences. This is entirely due to said controls. If you played a game like Super Meat Boy and felt like you were doing the same thing every time, but always getting different results, you’d be understandably upset. The levels would become impossible, and you’d be less “having fun with” the game than “banging your head against it.”

This has always been my problem with games that focus on fluid physics. Fluids are weird. They’re so baffling that if you can create an equation that actually describes their motion, you’ll net yourself a million dollar prize. But a lot of games don’t get that. They don’t understand that you can never have a fluid-dynamics game heavy on precise control because that’s not how the substance behaves. Obstacles are difficult to deal with, the liquid is difficult to control, and even simple jumps become exercises in annoyance with the absence of tight controls and reliable physics.

So now that I’ve preloaded this review greatly, let’s talk about Puddle. Puddle is a game guilty of everything about the genre that I don’t like. It focuses highly on platforming stages, asking you to move liquid around obstacles, over jumps, and past myriad dangers that destroy whatever solution you happen to be at the time.

At the beginning of the game, though, you don’t really notice it with its simple enough series of turns and puzzles that's actually fun. You see what could have been: avoiding flames, hitting switches, it’s not too bad, and the physics actually feel really good. There are even a few spots where the game locks you in a room and to continue, you'll have to pull off a specific task. It’s a smart use of the idea, and while most of the levels can be won with a gold medal just by tilting and going full speed all the time, you can see how the concept would be fun.

It’s not long into the game that you notice how annoying it can be, though. Too many levels rely less on reflex and manipulation and more on trial and error; in fact, there are a lot of cases where you don’t so much solve a problem as luck into its solution. Fluids also have the nasty habit of separating, which causes its own share of problems for the poor camera as it attempts to keep all parts of the liquid on screen. It winds up giving you the very worst view, or going after the smallest piece of liquid, resulting in you losing a lot to some unseen hazard. Levels that take place in the body were especially bad with this, and your solution would completely fall apart from any provocation. Be prepared to play levels over and over again, becoming more frustrated each time you have to redo them because of how difficult it is to control the liquid through various in-game tasks.

Apparently for the WiiU release, the developers actually checked player feedback and changed levels to make them less frustrating, and while I don’t want to call them liars, I have a difficult time imagining how horrifically annoying those earlier versions must have been as there are still parts of this “improved” eShop version that are practically unplayable. An ill-advised zero-gravity section halfway through the game that took me far too long to get past. There are even areas where the minimum required amount of fluid needed to beat the level is too little to actually hit the switches set out for you. It’s ill-planned, and getting to the end of a level only to restart because of such an oversight is frankly baffling.

Ironically, the best parts of Puddle were the parts where I WASN’T controlling liquid. There are sections where you have to move a beaker, or a snow globe, or even an ink jet and maneuver your way through a level or solve a puzzle that way. These areas were great shows for the physics engine, and a lot of fun to find sprinkled around the game. I wish I could have played more of them, or played a game that was more focused on those sorts of interactions. These bright moments are fleeting, though, and in the very next area, you’re often going to be back in control of another fluid, rolling your eyes as you restart yet again because of some small, unperceivable change in your actions.

Puddle goes along with a handful of games that prove the point that to make a good game, you need to have more than an interesting gimmick and know what to DO with that gimmick. This is the part that the developers clearly missed out on. Where Puddle could have worked well as a series of puzzles and physics toys, it instead chooses to present you with platforming-heavy levels and weird rules that take away from the sheer joy of watching liquids interact with objects. The decent core concept winds up being entirely buried under a mountain of frustrating, annoying levels and pointlessly difficult tasks that suck the fun out of the game. It really seems like it would have worked better as a middleware physics engine, because it certainly doesn’t work as a game.