Any puddle of liquid is nothing but a multitude of drops, and in the new downloadable game Puddle, the significance of each individual, precious drop is brought home. Here, you must guide substances of all kinds through a diverse assortment of treacherous environments, and if you let one too many drops fall victim to the dangers that surround them, you're sent back to the start of the grueling obstacle course you're navigating. It's a tense and delicate process, requiring a great deal of focus and offering a rewarding sense of accomplishment. But despite an impressive amount of variety in its visuals and in the challenges that it presents you with, Puddle sustains the same high-tension note too consistently and for too long, and the result is a game that too often shatters its own mesmerizing spell with frustrations.
Puddle is controlled using only the left and right shoulder buttons. These cause the entire environment to tilt in one direction or the other, which typically makes the liquid whose journey you're supervising at that moment slide downhill, or gain (or lose) momentum. Comparisons to the WiiWare game Fluidity are unavoidable, but there are a number of differences between that game and Puddle. Whereas Fluidity gave you the ability to make your water leap, transform into blocks of ice, and so on, Puddle never introduces such abilities. Instead, its variety comes from the fact that you frequently move from one type of liquid and one type of environment to the next.
You start by guiding the contents of a cup of coffee into a drain, which is easy enough. But soon, you're moving a chemical solution through a lush forest, trying to avoid absorbent plants and speed past the snapping jaws of Venus flytraps. You must also escort some nitroglycerin through a busy laboratory, careful all the while not to handle it too roughly and trigger an explosion. A later scenario has you helping a liquid pass through parts of a man's body; at one point during this section, you must race to stay ahead of a destructive ball of acid, and a bit later, you must rapidly tap the left and right triggers to generate the blood pressure necessary to propel the liquid through veins at just the right speed. Puddle never wants for variety; you guide some ink to the proper place on a designer's technical diagram, move propellant through the fiery innards of a rocket, and aid numerous other puddles on their journeys.
Most scenarios present their own distinct challenges--helping orange goo drift through the zero-gravity interior of a spaceship is altogether different from hurrying molten metal through a foundry, moving quickly from flame to flame to ensure the metal doesn't cool and harden. The frequently shifting properties of the liquid you're controlling, and the differing dangers you face in each new environment, keep Puddle fresh across its eight chapters of six levels each. And while the game, to its credit, doesn't explicitly impose any meaning on its events, it's easy to find a subtle statement about the relationships between nature and industry, between creativity and science in Puddle's winding path through so many different scenarios.
No matter the liquid you're manipulating and the dangers you're navigating, there's a hypnotic beauty to Puddle. The liquid moves at a fraction of the speed it would in real life, letting you appreciate the captivating ways in which droplets realistically gather, spread, flow, and skitter across surfaces. And while your attention is always focused on the liquid and its movement, the striking environments don't go unnoticed. The X-ray vision of the human body sequence creates a convincing sense that you're observing events taking place inside a person, and a sense of serenity sets in as you watch the orange globule drift in zero gravity while the planet Earth can be blurrily discerned through a window in the background.
But this sense of serenity is too often broken. Puddle is difficult and it demands focus; the slightest error--moving just a bit too slow or a bit too fast--can result in failure. There's value in this kind of grueling challenge. When you successfully guide your liquid to the exit, you may breathe a sigh of relief, like a scientist who has just completed a dangerous experiment in which the slightest mishandling of volatile chemicals might have resulted in catastrophe. But Puddle offers no relief. The completion of one nerve-racking stage means the beginning of the next. No one level takes more than a few minutes, start to finish, but some will likely take you dozens of tries, and eventually, being kicked back to a level's loading screen for the umpteenth time as you prepare to give that level yet another go can be infuriating.
It's especially irritating when your failures can be attributed to a lack of awareness about the dangers ahead, because Puddle doesn't give you a good way to prepare for them. The camera always observes the current position of your liquid, which is problematic because you often don't know if speed or caution is called for on the stretch immediately ahead. You often fail as the result of an obstacle you didn't know was there until an instant before you spilled right into it. Of course, you then know to watch out for it the next time, but there may be plenty more like it between you and the level's exit.
The frequent frustrations of Puddle mean that only the most patient of players will have what it takes to reach the end. That's a shame, because it presents a fascinating journey through forests and foundries, into outer space and inner space. But each time you find yourself getting fully absorbed in this game's demanding and delicate action, the unbalanced and frequently unfair level of difficulty ripples the surface and snaps you out of the moment.