Monday, July 14, 2008

Soul Bubbles review

Soul Bubbles makes its intentions clear from the moment you first fire up the game - you are presented with the following disclaimer...

This game does not depict any of the following objects or events:

Licensed racing cars
Post-apocalyptic soldiers
Elfs, orcs or magicians
Gang fights

Please do not not panic! It's all gonna be hunky dory...

Not only does it poke fun at the genres that have become something of a cliche in recent times, it also tells you that Soul Bubbles is a game designed with everyone in mind, young or old, experienced gamer or not. This is indeed the truth - developer Mekensleep has created one of the most interesting and enjoyable games of the year and it's a nice change of pace from the likes of GTA, Halo or World of Warcraft.

Format: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Eidos
Developer: Mekensleep
Genre: Puzzle
Region: Europe
Price: Around £30

8 out of 10
Soul Bubbles features gorgeous 2D visuals in a hand painted style which are extremely pleasant to look at. The physics of the bubbles in particular are impressive - they react to the effects of wind, water and being sliced into smaller bubbles just as you'd expect. After a while to start to take this for granted and begin to think of them as real bubbles, but it is important to remember that someone somewhere had to draw, animate and program them that way.

The intricate maze-like levels which feature gears, cogs and other contraptions will remind you of Loco Roco if you have had the fortune to play that game, and indeed this is what Soul Bubbles most closely resembles. In some of the later levels you need to trap water inside a bubble and then use it to douse flames so you can progress further, and the water inside the bubble also sloshes around convincingly.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
I'm going to compare Soul Bubbles to another recent release now - this time LostWinds for Nintendo's WiiWare service. Not only because they both involved manipulating the world with wind power, but because they also share a similar art and audio style. The music is extremely relaxing and therapeutic and features chanting and the use of exotic instruments such as the didgeridoo. While I was playing through the game I would often get through a level or two on my lunch break at work and it was a great stress buster after the morning's work - so much so that I had to be careful I didn't fall asleep! The music had a lot to do with this.

You really should check out this smart and fun game, it deserves to do well.

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
As the name suggests, Soul Bubbles involves you manipulating a bubble or bubbles around maze-like levels via the use of wind power. However - there's more to the game than that. Your bubble is there to serve a purpose - it is the protective vessel for 7 souls. Should your bubble burst, either through accident or due to an act of aggression from a creature in the level, you will have a few seconds to redraw another bubble around the souls, or they will start to die. Should you lose all of them it's game over, and the fewer you have also affect your overall rating for the level.

You can also draw new bubbles independently from your main one for various reasons - for example if there's some fairy dust that you are unable to get to, just draw a bubble in the space on the other side of the obstruction and pick it up. Then use the Deflate ability to burst it. You may also want a separate bubble for other reasons - putting out a fire for example. You don't want to fill your main bubble with water, or the souls will drown!

Then you have the ability to split your one big bubble into multiple smaller bubbles - you may have to do this in order to squeeze through tight gaps, or in order to get through strong gusts of wind (many smaller bubbles have less wind resistance that one big one, making them easier to get through). As well as these there are other elements that come into play throughout the game at the rate of one new gameplay mechanic per world. Other than the fire/water that I've already mentioned, I'll keep the rest a secret as discovering them as you go along and figuring out how they work is all part of the charm.

To complicate matters a little, there is fairy dust and Calabash to collect. Collecting all the fairy dust also has an effect on your overall rating for the level, but Calabash is a bit more important. In order to gain access to the later worlds you must have collected a certain amount of Calabash - there are three per level and they are usually hidden away from the main route, so finding them all requires patient exploration and some fairly straightforward puzzle solving. Getting from one end of a level to the other is pretty easy for the most part, so having these extra side goals to aim for adds a bit of extra challenge to the game (though not much). The real emphasis of these game is having fun, rather than the challenge.

Innovation and Cleverness: 8 out of 10
There's some good, solid use of the touch screen to be found here, and the levels are well designed with some interesting puzzles to figure out. This is an example of what the DS does best and the developers of horrid shovelware such as the Catz games should take a look at this and feel ashamed.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
Unfortunately I have to mark the game down a bit here, because although great fun, there's not quite enough of it and what there is isn't particularly challenging. A few more worlds would have made quite a difference. True, in order to get a perfect rating on a stage you need to collect everything and make sure all your souls stay alive - but if you're thorough and careful this never really becomes an issue.

Overall: 8 out of 10
If you are looking for a great new game to play on your DS or just want a change from the usual crap that is churned out for all the major consoles, then Soul Bubbles should give you what you need. True, it's not the longest or most challenging game in the world but it is a memorable and absorbing experience. I look forward to whatever Mekensleep decides to do next!

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