Puddle Hands-On Preview

A small team of developers originally created Puddle, a physics-based platform game that’s all about manipulating liquids, as a student project while attending ENJMIN, The Graduate School of Games and Interactive Media in France. In 2010, it was honored in the Independent Game Awards’ Student Showcase.

The game is currently available for download on PC in some places, but it’s also coming to Xbox Live Arcade and to the Playstation Network, with full Playstation Move support — elevating the gameplay a great deal. Konami is publishing the downloadable title, which won’t support Kinect in its Xbox version, by the way. There also isn’t a firm release date for the title as yet.

Konami had Puddle on-hand for a preview at its first-ever pre-E3 event this week, and we got a chance to pick up a Move controller and give pouring digital liquids a try.

The way Puddle actually plays is a little difficult to describe. The game is all about manipulating a big puddle of liquid and moving it from one side of a level to the other, avoiding hazards like fire that will burn off your liquid, chemicals that will interact with it, and pitfalls that will diminish its size. Your score at the end of each level is determined by how much of your original liquid you can get to the end, and if you lose too much, you’ll hit a game over screen.

To control the puddle, you don’t actually control the liquid itself — it moves based on the physics of the level around it, moving in that predictable way that liquid should. So when you control the game, you aren’t actually moving the liquid with the controller, you’re tilting the whole level around it. That’s all the control you have, in fact: tilt the whole level to the right to make the liquid run to the right, and ditto to the left. Keeping careful control of the liquid by anticipating its speed and the dangers ahead give each level its challenge.

Playing with the Move controller seems to be absolutely the best way to play Puddle. On Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, it’ll also work with standard gamepads’ shoulder buttons, but with the Move you get the game’s dynamic, realistic physics coupled with a dynamic, realistic way of controlling them. Holding the move in front of you as if you’re holding the handle of a crank, you just twist your wrist left to tilt the level left, right to go right. It’s a much more intuitive way to play the game than it seems the shoulder buttons would be.

The Move does have its drawbacks, however. Puddle doesn’t give you full freedom to tilt each level, and in fact will sometimes reassess the amount of tilt you can give it in certain areas, so there are times that what is gained in making the game feel natural by giving you those wrist-twisting controls is lost by the fact that Puddle ignores them because it knows better than you. These changes often happen at hazards, where the game will itself tilt a little left or right and reset your axis of control, leaving you twisting away to no avail. It’s a minor inconvenience, but it creates a disconnect with the controls that is a touch jarring.

Each level in Puddle has a different feel and a different liquid type, and those liquids will often have different properties you’ll have to use to complete each level. This is a place where Puddle excels — it has some great level design with some really interesting backgrounds to work through. Easily the best level is an X-Ray of the human body, which starts your puddle as a drink being dumped down someone’s throat. Every so often, you’ll have to get through a valve of some kind, which need to be triggered by touching them with liquid but not crowding them. The very first is a good example: you want the body to recognize that it needs to swallow the liquid, so you roll over the throat, but you also don’t want the guy to choke on your liquid, so you need to get the puddle clear while he breathes so he doesn’t gag and destroy some of the puddle. It’s a great-looking level, especially at first, and the creativity helps to keep things interesting.

In another level, you need to get a puddle of herbicide to the end of a level and often use it to kill plants, but have to avoid killing too many, because burning through plant obstacles costs you a little bit of the puddle. Most of the levels have hazards like these to deal with as well as minor little puzzle elements like switches or counterweights to work out — nothing that’s going to be too taxing, but enough to make the whole experience interesting.

I played through three or so levels of Puddle, and during that time I enjoyed it. Unlike most motion control games, you feel like you’re improving with Puddle over time as you refine your touch with the Move controls. This is mitigated to a point by those moments of recalibration I mentioned above, where the game shifts the axis of the level and basically changes the rules on you. But for the most part, Puddle is a solid physics game that’ll be a strong download when it’s available this summer. I don’t know that I’d pay more than about $10 for it, even with Move controls, though, because it just doesn’t seem like a very long experience. But it’s nice that Konami has picked up a promising indie student project and on the whole, Puddle looks and feels pretty great.

Download the trailer here.

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