Price: 800 MSP ($10)
These days, it’s easy and oftentimes successful to design games with too many interacting mechanics. The sheer complexity of some games can completely overshadow the ineptitude of some or even all of the various concepts coming together to form the whole. With this idea as a given, it takes a great boldness to produce a truly simple game. Creating a game that’s pure in its focus of a single gameplay element requires that one element to be so meticulously refined as to be worthy of an entire gaming experience in and of itself. Such is the case with Neko Games and Konami’s Puddle, a game whose elegant hubris allows it to swim past its own shortcomings with ease. It’s truly an avant-garde gaming experience, telling a beautiful story without a single character or line of dialogue.
As the game begins, a silhouetted man is seen pouring himself a cup of coffee. He sets the coffee on the table and walks away. He is a pawn in this tale; his character is insignificant. His simple act of preparing his daily dose of caffeine, while mundane in and of itself, ends up being the setup for a lengthy adventure – for the coffee, not for the man. The camera focuses in on the cup, and all is silently still. It may take a moment to sink in that the catalyst for this journey is literally in the player’s hands at this point, and that it couldn’t be any simpler in premise. A pull of the left trigger (on Xbox 360; L2 on PS3) tilts the entire world to the left, and the right trigger tilts to the right. By rocking back and forth, the coffee sloshes around in the cup until it builds up enough momentum and tips over. The coffee spills down to the ground, seeping into an open grate. It then begins its journey in the plumbing of the building before departing to bigger and broader vistas.
Throughout the course of the game, the simple controls introduced in the beginning maintain their status as the game’s only means of interaction. The goal in each stage of the game is to tilt the world so as to accommodate the path of the constantly flowing liquid. Things begin rather simply, with little more to deal with than angling the world to make sure that the liquid flows downhill for increased speed. As the game progresses, the challenge ramps up considerably as all manner of environmental hazards are brought into the equation.
It doesn’t take long for the difficulty to settle in, and it’s an uphill climb from there. Make no mistake – despite the game’s simple design and light aesthetic, it’s a punishingly hard game for the most part. It’s easy to get discouraged when the number of failed attempts on a single given level reaches the dozens, but keep your chin up, no problem in Puddle is impossible to solve.
Each stage is a self-contained lesson or set of lessons on the properties of liquid in its copious forms. With tenacious perseverance, you’ll find yourself taking steps ever closer towards mastery over the game’s physics. It’s through these most trying times that the game grants its greatest rewards – success in Puddle brings an immense satisfaction with which very few games can compete.
Puddle‘s presentation flawlessly follows suit with its game design. The minimalist musical score flows as smoothly as liquid, with pleasing electronic textures that cascade through the ears. The visual style is colorful and diverse, with different levels starkly contrasting one another. Many elements of both the foreground and the background are shown in silhouette, with the eye being most drawn to those objects that directly influence the liquid’s path – be they hazardous or otherwise. The liquid itself is always eye-catching, both in terms of color and movement. The liquid brilliantly displays the carefully crafted physics system as it dances around the game’s environments. The superb animation of the liquid can be simply sublime, which does wonders in terms of alleviating the stress of the puzzles. It’s like going on an epic journey through a lava lamp – without the need for hallucinogenic drugs!
Unfortunately, the game is not without frustrations. The camera does its job well for the most part, but there are occasional moments in which it fouls up the experience. Since the liquid will occasionally break up into multiple separate beads, the camera will generally stay focused on the largest one. This isn’t always the one you’ll want to watch, however, and any groupings of liquid that end up off screen are more often than not a lost cause. While this won’t always lead to a failure, the times in which it does can be downright obnoxious. The complete lack of camera control for situations like these may seem like a horrendous oversight on the part of the developer, but it’s difficult to imagine a way in which it could have been implemented without complicating things, thus betraying the game’s simplistic design philosophy. It’s important to keep in mind that these camera issues only come up in situations that can be avoided by simply playing better. Another minor complaint is that the hints and tips that display while levels load are rife with grammatical errors. While this is certainly noticeable, it really isn’t a major concern. After all, developer Neko Games is a French company, so there’s a language barrier to be blamed.
Puddle may not be perfect, but at least it knows exactly what it wants to be. It wants to be clever, beautiful, insightful, unique, and, most of all, understood and appreciated by everyone. It’s aware of its flaws, but confident enough to be itself. I can wholeheartedly recommend that anyone with an open mind, a taste for the unique and a thirst for the rewards of intense challenge, experiences Puddle for themselves.
Puddle was reviewed with a copy provided by Konami. You can download the game in the Xbox Live Arcade or Playstation Store for 800 MSP/ $9.99.