It is often said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Or perhaps one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Puddle is a great example of this. It’s a game that does so many things right technically, but at the same time, limits its audience of enjoyment with some unfortunate design choices. The end result is a game that some will love, and others will hate. Your mileage will vary, and it will depend on the type of person you are.
The Parent Perspective
One of the weak points of the ESRB rating system is the overly broad nature of the T rating. This is nothing new, and something we’ve talked about on multiple occasions. This is a game that falls in the milder part of the T spectrum. There will be a small amount of blood, a few “violent” moments, perhaps, and apparently at one point human urine kills a rat whose guts then go into a sewer. So, there will be some gross moments, and perhaps some of the imagery will disturb the odd child, but on the whole it’s not that bad.
I’ll expand more in the review proper, but it’s the difficulty level that is more of a determining factor in whether kids can play this game. The controls are easy enough, but the game is extremely challenging, and even grown adults will get frustrated fairly quickly. It’s not the content I’m worried about so much, I just think it’s more suited to a more patient and mature audience.
Special mention should be made to all the science references in the game. There’s an opportunity here for older kids to pick up some neat facts about parts of the science world, like the Periodic Table of Elements, chemical reactions, liquid viscosity and flow, formula charting, etc. They just may not play the game enough to see it all.
The eagle-eyed among you will notice that yes, I did use the word “apparently” above. I would have liked to have seen the “deadly urine kills rat causing guts to spill down sewer” moment, but I never quite got there. Actually, I never even got close. See, Puddle is a game that looks very good, obviously had a lot of thought and effort put into it, and demands a steady hand and keen mind. It’s too bad that many gamers will never get to fully appreciate it because they simply gave up playing it.
Puddle’s concept is simple enough. Get liquid from point A to point B, making sure you get a certain minimum to the end to advance. You can’t control the liquid, but you tilt the world itself using the analog trigger buttons. Along the way, of course, are various clever hazards that will do all sorts of dastardly things to your liquid, and depending on what kind of liquid you have for that level, you’ll need to know its properties and how the various hazards affect it to have any expectation of success. An analytical brain, a soft touch, and lots of patience all must come together.
And therein lies the problem. When these things don’t come together perfectly, the game’s brutal difficulty will eat you alive. It’s not that the learning curve is exponential so much as it’s nearly vertical. And to make matters worse, there are some infuriating design choices that sap the enjoyment out of the experience, unless you’re one of those sadomasochists who enjoy this kind of thing. Let’s take a look at where the game goes from challenge to “broken controllers and tv screens” frustration.
Trial and Error gameplay – First off, each level starts with the liquid flowing. You don’t get a level overview, you just jump right in. And since the camera only focuses close up on your liquid (or at least the lead part of it, and liquid that stays off screen too long disappears), you really have no clue what to expect. This means having to make quick decisions, which in itself isn’t so bad. But sometimes you simply don’t have enough time to react to a hazard that comes out of nowhere. Before you know it, level over, retry, and try to remember that hazard for next time. This reduces each level to a combination of trial and error gameplay and level memorization. Frankly, that strikes me as a bit lazy.
Reloading – The only thing more frustrating than failing a level is the load time you have to endure before trying again. Lots of games are guilty of this, but Puddle isn’t an open world game. The levels are finite. You’re seriously telling me that I can’t instantly retry a failed level, instead enduring a 5-10 second load screen with a big number telling me what attempt number I’m on now? Actually, the number is a fun kick in the teeth, but the load time adds insult to injury.
No checkpoints – Call me a pansy if you want to for wanting these, and perhaps the game concept doesn’t lend itself well to checkpointing. Fine. Then don’t put do-or-die precision timing elements at the very end of a level, where being a fraction of a second off with your timing results in a level fail, and having to start all over again (after a load time, of course), regardless of how well you’d executed the level up to that point. On the 25th attempt, it gets old.
The game does give you two “whines”, which allow you to skip a level if you just can’t beat it. But two whines in a ridiculously difficult game that has 48 levels? Thanks for the generosity. Since the game gives you ratings based on time taken and liquid preserved (cleverly represented, by the way, by the Periodic Table of Element entries for gold, silver, and copper), perhaps the player could have been rewarded with extra whines for hitting a certain number of Gold ratings.
The GamerPops Recommendation
You can look at this two ways. On one hand, you might think that being unable to finish the game means I didn’t appreciate the challenge of it and didn’t give it a fair chance to see what it had to offer. That’s fine, and if that’s your mindset, you’ll probably love this game. It has a unique but satisfying visual aesthetic, it controls well, and is extremely clever. If tense, all-or-nothing challenge and the pressure it provides is your thing, absolutely check this game out.
On the other hand, the frustrating, and borderline cheap elements that make up part of that challenge WILL make a lot of gamers give up (if they don’t destroy their controllers first) and will take most of the enjoyment out of said challenge. And if you’re reading our website, chances are you’re a parent with precious limited time for gaming on your own, so playing a video game needs to be an effective and entertaining use of your time. This game is neither of those. Dozens of level attempts with trial and error gameplay are just not what a lot of people will consider fun, and they will unfortunately miss out on a title that can deliver so much more.
ESRB Rating Summary
Content descriptors: Fantasy Violence, Crude Humor, Mild Blood
Rating summary: No summary available.