Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Release Date: June 10, 2008
If you cross Soul Calibur and Bubble Bobble, you'd come up with something ... that is nothing at all like Soul Bubbles. Well, the game title is just plain misleading.
On the bright side, amalgamating those two games sounds like a disaster, while Soul Bubbles is anything but. It's the first title in well over a year that's made me need to use my DS charger on a regular basis. That's the good news: It's simply a brilliant game and the perfect fit for the handheld. The bad news is that its projected sales figures are likely to fall into "cult classic" territory rather than challenging the top 40. It's fully aware of that, too, labor of love that it is, even starting off with a "warning" that the following game contains no urban gang warfare or fast cars. It's a different kind of title — the beautiful, relaxing love child of a LocoRoco-Kirby's Magic Paintbrush-Yoshi Touch and Go orgy.
The protagonist is you because the soul guardian inside your DS console (every handheld ships with one, y'know, and the one in the GameGear ate batteries for breakfast, greedy thing) wants your help. By blowing into the DS' microphone, your DS' soul is now in the game, represented by a cutesy small child. Thankfully, this is the one time you have to use the microphone, and it's a rather nice use — understated, without needing to cover your DS in saliva and looking like you have serious issues in public. From there on, you have to guide the dead souls across the wasteland and toward an afterlife, in a bubble that you blow along by pointing at the direction in which you want your avatar to blow.
That's the premise of Soul Bubbles. Across numerous themed worlds, you gently guide your souls across a maze that slowly becomes clear as you move around. It starts off simple enough, and you only need to avoid obstacles, but the game slowly introduces more concepts. You can blow bubbles around heavy and light gases to break through cloth barriers, for example, and if you combine the two gases, you get an explosive that breaks through walls. If anything, the title introduces these concepts too slowly, and the learning curve is gentle to the point of sedate, but that's okay because this is a relaxing game, the perfect antithesis of the mania of Mario Kart or the stylus-bending frustration of Trauma Center.
Soul Bubbles isn't a challenging game by any means — I didn't fail a single level and lost only two souls (you get seven for every level) over the course of the entire title — but this never becomes an annoyance because it continues to be soothingly enjoyable even without any difficulty blocks. This isn't to say that the game is without its challenges. When the story is finished, you can replay any level to improve your time and/or find the extras you missed the first time around. Typically, games of object hide-and-seek are the refuge of publishers trying to eke out every bit of gaming so they can claim 20+ hours of gameplay on the press release, but in Soul Bubbles, they really are part of the joy. It's fair to say that I will be continuing to hunt for those final illusive extras long after I lay the final full stop to this superlative prose.
Control-wise, the title makes perfect use of the DS' functionality in that you both would not be able to replicate the experience anywhere else, and it clearly hasn't been implemented as an afterthought. It's very obvious that Soul Bubbles was based around the DS' controls, rather than being shoehorned in. You control the movement of your avatar with the stylus, blowing the bubble in the direction you face. Your special functions — drawing new bubbles, cutting them in half and deflating — are all mapped to the d-pad, which you hold down as long as you want the function to work, or the face buttons for the southpaws amongst you. The top screen displays a map that fills out over time, which you can switch to (and move to a new waypoint) by holding down on the d-pad and pointing to where you want to go. It's a great system and ensures you're never lost, even if you manage to lose some of your bubble somewhere in the map. The title only uses the microphone once, and this is just about right so that it's a novelty used lightly to draw you into the concept and then abandoned like the bad control method concept it's always been.
Graphically, Soul Bubbles is a beauty. The backdrops are all hand-drawn art, and the bubbles themselves shimmy and move realistically, adding to the soothing, dreamy feel of the entertainment. The various beasties you encounter are cartoon cutesy, but not to the point of distraction. While it never attempts 3-D, it plays to the DS' graphical strengths perfectly, and the result is that this unambitious-looking puzzler is far more aesthetically pleasing than some of the 3-D disasters attempted on the system. The sounds also have an understated charm that works really well, from the delightful soundtrack to the "level complete" noise to the succession of notes that play as you collect star pieces; it just works perfectly.
The only criticism I can level at Soul Bubbles is that it's a slow starter and a quick finisher, which is a hard combination to forgive. It doesn't really reach its full potential until halfway through the game, but if you stick it out, you'll find a brilliant, if short-lived, gem. It's unlikely to be a bestseller, but it's the kind of title that serious DS gamers owe it to themselves to try. It's the best DS game I've played since the DS Lite burst onto the scene, and that says it all. It'll take more than a lack of difficulty and a short-lived main game to burst my happy bubble.
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