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Published January 7, 2013

Let’s get the gripe out of the way: Fluidity: Spin Cycle, a puzzle-platformer focused on moving water in all of its states, should be a mess for so many different reasons. First and foremost, any game that asks you to rely solely on the 3DS’s internal gyroscope to move around is just asking for trouble, and Spin Cycle often has you turning the system completely upside down, forcing you to contort your hands that would make Kid Icarus: Uprising fans shudder. This also puts Spin Cycle in the rare category of “portable games that aren’t really portable,” alongside Kirby’s Tilt ‘n’ Tumble and WarioWare Twisted, so don’t plan on playing it on the subway.

The good news is that like those games, Fluidity: Spin Cycle is a game that’s well-worth wrestling with, and may in fact be my favorite eShop-exclusive game of 2012. (It was released on December 27th, cutting it pretty close!) For every minor hiccup when I accidentally hit the “Home” button or finicky controls made moving the ice block a temporary hassle, there were many more where I was just floored by the intricate level design and versatile mechanics. Spin Cycle is a massive game, and yet it almost always feels inventive.*

*Small boo to a recurring boss.

Of course, Spin Cycle is building off of a great foundation, as anyone who played the original Fluidity on Wii will attest. In both games, you’ll start off with a sentient puddle of water that moves from side-to-side as you tilt the controller. As you progress, you get access to more states – a solid block of ice and a vapor cloud – and a couple powers for each. The WiiWare Fluidity had an enormous sprawling map that blended tried-and-true Metroid exploration with finely-tuned physics puzzles. Spin Cycle reins it in just a bit, with four worlds divided into 15 levels. Though these levels aren’t interconnected, they typically have multiple pathways and optional routes to break open.

And finding the correct pathway, and seeing how all of the various mechanisms come together is Spin Cycle‘s greatest strength, especially in the later levels that draw on three states. In one later level, you have to open up a rocket bay door and trigger ignition to reach the imprisoned water sprite at the goal. This has you vaporizing to reach the outside of the base, and then raining down as a liquid to gain access to pipes that will lead you to a button you can only press in ice form. Nearly every one of these obstacle courses looks intimidating as the camera pans over them at the outset, but the level designers have done a fantastic job of gradually introducing new tricks and strategies.

While Spin Cycle isn’t quite Rube Goldbergian, gears, trap doors, magnets, saws and other gadgets all create the sense that every little piece of a level matters. Your puddle provides the power to everything from giant robots to subterranean drills, and even as the game expands its scope, it never loses sight of the core hook.

Spin Cycle does a great job of reinforcing your role in this world visually, too. Subtle effects, like how certain leaves or levers bend or shake as water ripples past them, go a long way towards selling the physics engine, and on-screen prompts and color-coded pathways do a great job of keeping you from getting lost.

Whereas the original Fluidity‘s style was vaguely reminiscent of an instruction manual (with your puddle moving through the panels on each page), Spin Cycle is clearly more “children”s book.” It looks really clean and colorful, even if they could have gone much further with background text, page borders and other little details. Each environment feels more alive than you might expect from a puzzle game; there’s one “espionage” stage where you have to escort a secret agent to various security checkpoints on a dam, knocking out security cameras and triggering lifts along the way. (It’s all very cute, of course.)

Fluidity: Spin Cycle comes together beautifully, even if it does feel really odd to hold the 3DS XL upside down or on its side to reach the goal. Maybe this type of game fits better on the smartphone, but at least the game shows you can do more with tilt-control on the 3DS than Face Raiders.

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