You've got to love a game which starts up with a faux disclaimer reading: "This game does not depict any of the following: licensed racing cars, post-apocalyptic soldiers, elves, orcs or gang fights - Please do not panic - it's all gonna be hunky dory".
And it's right. Soul Bubbles does steer completely clear of all these tired - sorry - tried and tested gaming ideas and everything is hunky dory. More than hunky dory, in fact, because that implies the word fine to us. And this game is far better than fine.
It's actually quite difficult to describe Soul Bubbles by comparing it to other titles because - and it feels like the first time I've said this about a DS game for a while - it's really very unique. Saying that, if you pressed a gun in my face I'd probably say it's a fair bit reminiscent of PSP game LocoRoco (it shares its safe, curvy, organic environments), albeit with a very different method of control, and also has the touch of Electroplankton about it.
Comparing what is essentially a puzzle action game with Electroplankton (which is more musical instrument than game) might seem a bit strange, but it's the overall feeling Soul Bubbles delivers that results in the similarity. While this is most definitely a game, there are expansive sections where not much is happening, leaving you to enjoy the general ambience created.
You're essentially left watching a bubble blowing in the breeze or gently rolling across bumpy landscapes, morphing to its surroundings. It squeezes slowly into gaps then builds momentum to fly along narrow passageways while all you can do is watch and enjoy transitions through the assorted organic, sometimes alien-looking worlds.
All the while, there's gentle music and soothing sound effects; tree leaves rustling as you pass, water gushing beneath you and your apprentice shaman character conscientiously drawing breaths and puffing away in order to move the bubble ever onwards. We should mention now too, Soul Bubbles is a very pretty game. In terms of the physics of your simple bubble it's perfect, while each level is beautiful and detailed.
The pace is most definitely laid back in Soul Bubbles. There's no point fighting a bubble, is there? Try to and you'll end up frustrated and your poor shaman red-faced and out of breath. You are in control, but at some points you just need to sit back and see where the environment takes you. This isn't a game to test your quick reactions or speedy trigger-finger.
All this might be giving the impression it's unchallenging, though, or even not much of a game. But despite it having few perilous hazards, plenty of gameplay still hides beneath an invitingly pleasant exterior.
Some more in depth description, then. Your goal in each of Soul Bubbles' levels is to guide a bunch of souls (which you protect by drawing a bubble around them) to the end 'Gateway Cube'. However, levels are designed with a variety of dangers likely to destroy this bubble - and expose these fragile souls to the elements - so it's no stroll in the park.
Switches need to be pushed, long-tongued hungry frogs deterred, mazes navigated and gale-force winds fought against. Which you'd think might be quite a big ask when armed with a simple bubble, but thankfully you have an assortment of tools to help. You can cut your bubble into smaller bubbles for instance (handy for squeezing through narrow gaps) and both inflate and deflate it. In later levels you can even fill it with water to then put out fires.
Most of the game's puzzles are quite simple - even easy in places. Although there's just enough variety, with new obstacles in each of the eight worlds, to keep your brain ticking over. Yet probably the most pleasing part of Soul Bubbles comes from its control system, which is so intuitive you're able to dedicate everything to simply enjoying the ride through the game.
Oh yes, the controls. You're a shaman character who blows the bubble to push it through the level. Touch the screen and he appears. Then slide the stylus towards the bubble in the direction you want it to go and he blows - but hold it there for more than a few seconds and he momentarily runs out of breath. It's a beautiful and simple system, only made slightly more complex by holding a direction on the D-pad to select a tool, tapping the screen on an enemy to strike it or a rock to break it.
Combine the controls with the game's thoughtfully designed levels and some thought-provoking puzzles and Soul Bubbles really is a treat for the senses. Probably the only criticism we could direct its way is that it doesn't feel like quite such a comprehensive and lengthy adventure as LocoRoco. Similar to it, it has collectable, hidden-away, calabashes and finding them all could take you weeks. But generally its levels and the game overall is flimsier in terms of length.
It all comes down to which you'd prefer: eight hours of sublime bubble puzzling, or 20 of those aforementioned race cars, soldiers and elves. It might not be an epic experience, but Soul Bubbles is an amazingly unique and wondrous ride. I know which one wins out for me.
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