Puddle hands-on preview

At first glance, it’d be all too easy to dismiss Puddle, Konami’s liquid-starring, physics-based puzzler, as a Fluidity clone. Like the watery WiiWare title, it tasks players with tilting and twisting 2D levels in an effort to navigate splashy substances through increasingly challenging obstacles. That, however, is where the similarities end. You see, unlike the Wii’s water-swishing take, Puddle’s a far less whimsical experience, both in terms of its darker visuals and more difficult gameplay.

Where Fluidity could often feel like a magical journey through vibrantly realized worlds, Puddle is no trip to Disneyland. Forgoing the quaint Dutch windmills and scenic mountain vistas that defined Curve Studios’ surprise hit, Puddle – a 2010 GDC Independent Games Festival Winner – favors more menacing environments. From factories and refineries to a foreboding forest and even an x-rayed human body, Puddle’s scarier stages should please players who found Fluidity’s quest for “rainbow drops” a little too sugary sweet.

This decidedly darker approach also translates to the title’s challenging gameplay. Fluidity sometimes granted players direct control over their drippy form, but Puddle is not so generous. Navigating liquid is strictly handled with right and left motions, which can be done with the PlayStation Move, the DualShock’s motion sensor, or with R1 and R2 trigger inputs (sorry, Kinect fans, the 360 version only supports gamepad controls).

We tried all three PS3 options and found the DualShock’s tilt functionality to be the most intuitive. That said, no option offers a cakewalk.

A quick tutorial had us sloshing a spilled cup of coffee around some simple environments, allowing us to get comfortable with the unconventional controls. Steering the hot java around by simply moving its containing level felt refreshingly fun and responsive. Additionally, the onscreen physics-heavy effects really sell the experience of splishing and splashing about. The solid controls and presentation continued to impress in a fire-filled refinery level. Spitting flames and cooking lava served as the dangers set up among the stage’s black pipes and glass tunnels. Of course, upon seeing our puddle evaporated a few times by these burning and blazing threats, we soon realized casually flailing the controller back and forth wasn’t going to cut it.

Puddle takes its physics-based play very seriously, so knowing when to slow down, build momentum, and even stop and strategize, factor heavily into a successful run through. In addition to directing basic movement and speed, we were tasked with working our water into fire-leaping jumps and creeping it along, snake-like, beneath shooting flames. Thankfully, getting scorched does not equal instant death; you’re only required to get a given amount of the wet stuff through successfully – a beaker in the screen’s top left corner keeps track of your supply. Still, even on Puddle’s easiest setting, we found the challenge steep. Just a few levels in and our pools of pretty blue liquid were disappearing into thin air before we could breach the half way point.

The developer knows its game is not for the faint of heart, though, and they’re even having a little laugh over its hardcore approach. You see, players are allowed three “whines,” essentially a trio of opportunities to skip an especially frustrating level. When used up, however, the game’s quick to remind you – complete with an onscreen “sad face” and some sinisterly worded text – that you must revisit the levels that made you cry in the first place if you wish to proceed. The Konami rep overseeing our demo wasn’t sure if the “whine” limit would be tweaked or if the final game would allow other options for skipping around and bypassing the steepest challenges.

Our time was spent primarily in a series of these factory-like levels, but we did get a glimpse of the aforementioned forest. Here, it seems the player controls some sort of golden nectar through poisonous plants and Venus flytraps. And while we didn’t see it in action, the human body section promises to threaten your intestine-traveling substance with stomach acid. On top of pitting players against a unique set of obstacles in every new setting, Puddle tasks them with steering liquids of varying viscosities, with equally diverse sets of physics properties.

While Konami was tight-lipped on details, it seems the final game will also encourage budding designers to create and share they’re own levels within the game‘s “Laboratory.” Our time was short with the title, but we appreciated its darker vibe and less casual approach to physic-based fun. We look forward to splashing some more in Konami’s Puddle when it arrives later this year.

Aug 23, 2011

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