Soul Bubbles is one of those games that sounds really rather dull and repetitive when you try to explain it. You blow a bubble around maze-like levels, attempting to transport a group of souls to a collection point. As I said, not the most exciting of game descriptions. The amazing thing is that developer Mekensleep has taken such a simple premise and turned it into a hugely original and brilliant portable game.
You play as a shaman, able to defy his diminutive size by blowing a huge volume of air from his tiny lungs. You can do this either by drawing a line in the direction you wish to blow or by holding your stylus on the screen and directing your gust. It's remarkably simple. The opening levels serve as tutorials, introducing you to the concept of blowing a bubble around and the various abilities you have at your disposal.
The game is controlled primarily with the stylus, but each stroke will perform a different move depending on which direction you're holding on the d-pad. Hold up and you're able to draw a circle on the screen, creating a new bubble. Hold left and your character whips out a tiger mask, allowing him to slice bubbles in half or rejoin them. Last but not least, holding down sees your shaman don his elephant mask, which lets him deflate bubbles.
Nothing all that brilliant sounding, you might think, but it's how the game asks you to use these abilities that makes Soul Bubbles stand out from the crowd. Slicing up bubbles is fun in itself and often essential to move them through small passages, but you can also use your slice attack to chop up pesky vines or even slice the tongue off a hungry toad. Your bubble is easily popped so drawing a new bubble around the souls is essential, but you can also use this technique to collect the stardust scattered around each level - you don't have to move your main bubble over it. The deflation move can even be used to shrink certain enemies.
All these techniques are introduced over the course of the game, although at times your hand is held a little too much. Take for example the first time you use a bubble and combine it with water. The game tells you what to do without you needing to think about solving the puzzle yourself. While Soul Bubbles has the look of a game that will appeal to younger gamers, more experienced gamers will appreciate the originality and potentially be disappointed by how everything is handed to you on a plate.
Soul Bubbles won't take you long to work through. Once you get the hang of the controls it's easy to fly through the levels, searching for the exit. On our first play through it took no more than six hours, with the 40 levels coming and going in the blink of an eye. To be fair, new ideas are introduced throughout, including some projectile weapons and neat puzzles, and there are a number of hidden collectables in each level. It's your desire to go hunting for these that will ultimately determine how much game time you get from Soul Bubbles.
While not nearly as cute or with the potential to become as iconic as the likes of LocoRoco or Patapon on PSP, Soul Bubbles is a very nice looking DS game. The cartoon-style, hand-drawn visuals impress and the movement of the bubbles looks great. Each of the game's eight areas has its own unique theme too, so you're never too far from a stage that looks completely different to what came before.
For a game from a developer we hadn't heard of Soul Bubbles far exceeded our expectations. The only thing preventing Soul Bubbles from being a classic is its insistence on telling you what you must be doing, making the game a stroll in the park. It's still well worth playing and a shining example of the kind of originality we haven't seen on the DS all that often in the last year.