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Looking a little like LocoRoco, Eidos' DS effort is highly suitable and entertaining, but way, way too easy...
- Unique concept.
- Excellent controls/interface.
- Impressive visual style.
- Not challenging enough.
- Not enough content.
- Serious lack of long-term appeal.
Put down your Nintendogs, stop the undemanding arithmetic, and assume the role of a young Spirit Herder in what Eidos proudly proclaims a "new phenomenon of gaming for the Nintendo DS." Not exactly the words we'd use when describing Soul Bubbles, but nevertheless Mekensleep's first title is an enjoyable effort that demonstrates a level of DS mastery not typically seen outside of Nintendo.
After booting up the game the first thing to greet you is a disclaimer reassuringly offering the advice, "Please do not panic! It's all gonna be hunky dory", after reticently stating that Soul Bubbles doesn't feature licensed racing cars; post apocalyptic soldiers; elfs, orcs, or magicians; and gang fights!
Bearing some uncanny similarities to SCE's LocoRoco, Soul Bubbles is nevertheless a satisfyingly unique experience on the DS and one that undoubtedly feels like a game tinkered and tailored specifically for the handheld. The general gist is you, as the soul herder, must navigate across eight stages, transporting the spirits safely from the start to the end of each level. Spirits' are gentle creatures, however, and require the slightly dubious protection of bubbles to take a trip across lands full of thorns, spikes, and other generally sharp objects.
Our main character does however have an array of tricks under his scarf to assist in the journey. Drawing circles to create new bubbles or frantically a new house for any homeless spirits, the anonymous hero can also deflate bubbles to cram into tight squeezes, slice bubbles into two, and rejoin them to access special bubble powers.
Using the stylus to position the soul herder around the screen and drawing motions to blow the bubbles around the stage (thankfully there's no actual blowing beyond the start screen), Soul Bubbles is a fast and often frantic test of your stylus skills and close control, delivered effectively with a thoroughly intuitive interface and stylus controls. The anonymous hero's special abilities are instantly triggered by holding onto the corresponding direction on the d-pad (or face button for lefties), which along with the ability to switch the map from the top screen brings a sense of immediacy that you'll often need.
Meticulously blowing your way across the terrain isn't the only challenge, with various creatures standing in the way, each requiring different techniques to dispose of them or use them to your advantage. As the game progresses, further aspects come into play that enhance Soul Bubbles puzzle qualities, whether it's merging bubbles with those that offer laser shooting abilities (and other variations), using light and heavy gasses to solve puzzles and combinations of both to explosive effects, or later stages such as Anirniit that freeze the bubbles to weight them down - the result is a stage that looks and plays very similarly to old-school Sonic the Hedgehog.
Like the best platformers from a time gone by, Soul Bubbles is all about collecting the hidden items, known as the Calabash, to unlock later stages and ultimately open up Agartha - The Land of the Dead. Just when it appeared that Soul Bubbles breath of fresh air would be too hard to resist a feeble cough and splutter signals it's surprisingly abrupt finale somewhere short of what we were hoping. Unlike the very best platformers Mekensleep's title just isn't devious enough. We played through the game in its entirety in a single day, and unlike the best examples, Soul Bubbles didn't even require revisiting previous stages to gain enough Calabash to unlock the last bonus stage - it was all just a little too simple for our liking.
Offering such an endearing experience it can be hard to put Soul Bubbles down, but, nevertheless, that moment comes a little too quickly for our liking. It's largely the simple designs of the levels and puzzles that falls a little short, with only the last two stages really offering anything remotely challenging. Besides the introduction of light, heavy, and explosive gas bubbles later in the game and a few other features, the game lacks a sense of progress with each new world both in terms of challenge and new ideas. Occasionally Soul Bubbles does meet its potential, the rapid flips between heavy and light gas on the later stages is a brilliant test of thought and reflexes, but there's really not enough to equal the very best puzzle/platform games we've seen over the years.