You could never accuse Puddle of lacking ideas. The Vita version of Neko Entertainment’s award-winning fluid-based puzzler is brimming with variety, from a tense jaunt across the test tubes and pipettes of a functioning scientific laboratory, right through to an underground romp as a single droplet of deceased rat discharge. There’s an underlying moral to the title’s cyclical narrative, but it never dwells upon it. Instead, Puddle is perfectly content with diluting its philosophical message – and allowing you to absorb your own meaning from it.
From a pure gameplay perspective, Puddle's core mechanic isn’t particularly the most exhilarating of ideas: you control a small mass of fluid across a selection of increasingly complex stages, carefully avoiding hazards and aiming to transport a pre-defined quota of material to a designated extraction point. The pacing is slow and deliberate, which helps to distance it from comparisons to Super Monkey Ball and Archer MacLean’s Mercury, but it’s the game’s impressive array of ideas which truly sets it apart.
Puddle rarely boxes you into using a single fluid type. Just as you’re getting used to one mechanic, the game will find a way to toss it aside and change things up. Throughout the course of the campaign you experiment with water, fertiliser, weed killer, dissolved medicinal substances and a temperamental explosive caramel lifted straight out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Impressively, each of these liquids are augmented with their own properties which completely adapt the flow of the game. Weed killer, for example, can be used to burn away stray plants and create new paths, while the fertiliser can be combined with limp flowers to grow makeshift platforms. The game is constantly implementing fresh fluids for you to play with, and while some fare better than others, its inventiveness ensures that the campaign never really outstays its welcome. Almost every level includes something new to do.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the game does such a depressingly poor job of communicating how each of these new mechanics work. During one of the campaign’s most memorable moments, you find your controlled substance absorbed into a human body’s blood stream, but while the game implements some fascinating ideas surrounding pulse rate, it’s never explicit about what to do. As such, you’ll waste time trying to understand what the game expects from you, rather than soaking up the atmosphere of the otherwise intense set-piece.
It’s an area that Neko Entertainment had actually promised to improve for the Vita version of Puddle, but aside from the odd hint that appears during the laborious loading screens, you’re still left largely unguided. The game’s ability to reinvent itself is genuinely commendable, but it comes at the expense of real frustration. At least you can now skip stages if it all gets a bit too much.
And you will want to skip stages, because Puddle is a desperately challenging game. While few of the title’s 49 levels last longer than two or three minutes, you’ll spend much of your time replaying stages over and over again. Outrageous difficulty spikes make it a system-smashing experience at times, and the lack of checkpoints only accentuate the issue. Merely finessing your fluid into one cohesive mass can be a challenge – but when you factor in environmental hazards and a slightly dicey frame-rate, the frustrations are only emphasised. The difficulty does add to the sense of fist-pumping accomplishment when you finally do complete a level, but we’re not convinced the pay-off is always worth the pain.
Thankfully, it looks fantastic. Its inherent gameplay variety lends itself to a rich array of visual styles, peaking with a thoroughly impressive Limbo-esque excursion through the human body. The contrast in colours really pop on the Vita’s OLED screen, and while the game does suffer from the occasional performance quirk, it’s still an impressive looking game.
It controls well, too. Neko Entertainment’s implemented a number of options for the Vita release, including more exotic inputs such as the rear-touch panel and motion sensor. While the latter disappoints – it feels frustratingly imprecise compared to other Vita titles – the rear-touch panel actually works rather well. Here the surface is divided into two segments, acting as a rather extravagant directional pad. Other options include the tried-and-tested analogue stick and shoulder buttons, both of which work as accurately as you’d expect them to.
In terms of content, Puddle isn’t the largest of games. Assuming you take a patient approach to the difficulty spikes, it’s possible to see out the campaign in less than four or five hours. However, there are online leaderboards to compete in and a wealth of gold medals to collect.
There are already better two-dimensional blob-based puzzlers on Vita, but Puddle is not entirely without merit. The title’s impressive variety and evolving mechanics ensure that it’s an experience worth dipping your toes into, even if its many difficulty spikes and inefficient communication will make you want to liquidate the expensive platform you’re playing it on.