A round of applause for the new kids on the block. No, not that boy-band from the 90's, but for Mekensleep, the independent developer of Soul Bubbles, a puzzle game published by Eidos Interactive for the Nintendo DS. It is a solid first effort packed with innovative design and gameplay. If it is a sign of things to come, than we should all wait in anticipation for whatever Mekensleep puts out next. But, first things first.
When Soul Bubbles begins, you take the role of an apprentice Spirit Herder under the tutelage of the Master, the greatest spirit herder of all-time. At the beginning of each level, your job is to guide the lost spirits to the Gateway Cubes under the protection of a mystical bubble. Along the way, as you uncover more and more of the map, you'll encounter various obstacles that will impede your progress or even pop your bubble, putting your spirits at risk of being trapped in limbo forever. While the narrative isn't exactly riveting, it functions well enough to set up the overall tone, style and design of the game. But the primary reason to play Soul Bubbles isn't for the story, it's for the overall game design and gameplay which starts strong and continues to develop in surprisingly fun ways as you work your way through the game.
The art design of the game is based on Shaman culture and beliefs so the worlds and levels of Soul Bubbles are designed with a strong emphasis on nature and aboriginal art. Each world has a different look and is based on its underlying theme. In the first world, Tir Tairngire, it's the Druidic forest, in the second, Altjeringa, it's Aboriginal Dreamtime. So in the first world, there are a lot of trees and greens, while in the second, there are more rocks and earthy tones.
The first three levels of Soul Bubbles are Initiation levels that act as a tutorial, teaching you how to blow a bubble and find your way through a map. This continues into the first level of the first world where you learn how to cut, draw and deflate bubbles, fundamental skills that you will need in order to guide the spirits to the end of each level.
There are a total of 8 different worlds in Soul Bubbles, each with a different twist that adds some variety in the gameplay. With the gradual introduction of elements such as enemies, vines, fire, water and different gasses, it prevents the game from becoming repetitive by keeping you on your toes. Just when you think the rest of the game is going to be a cakewalk, Mekensleep throws something new at you, to keep you invested in the gameplay, and increase your enjoyment of it.
The controls for Soul Bubbles are easy to get accustomed to. To blow a bubble across the screen, you use the stylus to touch a certain point near the bubble to position your Spirit Herder. When you slide the stylus in the direction you want the bubble to go, it prompts the Spirit Herder to blow air in that direction. To cut, draw, or deflate a bubble, you simply need to select the appropriate option using the directional pad and perform the required actions with the stylus. After a few minutes of practice, you should be able to master these simple techniques. But if you find yourself forgetting how to do a specific action, don't worry, instructions pop up on the top screen when you select the appropriate function. So if you forget how to cut or draw a bubble, just select the right function and the instructions will be on screen. You never have to worry about remembering how to play the game which is a great feature for the busy mind of a child or the forgetful nature of an adult.
Your performance throughout each level is graded depending on how many spirits you save, how much stardust you collect and how many calabashes you find. If you manage to save, collect and find everything, you receive a top grade of S which diminishes with everything you miss. Your completion of a level is also timed so for the obsessive-compulsives out there, even though you found everything, you can always improve your time. While the overall grade you receive doesn't affect the outcome of the game, finding things does matter. You must save 15 spirits in each world to unlock the next and you need to find 50 calabashes in the first seven worlds to unlock the eighth and final one.
With all the good things to say about Soul Bubbles, there are a couple of mildly disappointing elements of the game. The sound design and music are unremarkable but do their job of reinforcing the art design and creating an ambient atmosphere in which you can play the game. Sound is primarily based on original nature sounds while the music is inspired by Aboriginal music. There is also not much to speak of for unlockables but a lone gallery which has some artwork of the game itself as well as the game during its development. In the end, these are minor complaints that really don't detract from the overall enjoyment of the game.
Soul Bubbles is a welcome addition to the DS. It's fun, it's challenging and most of all, it's worth your time. It's simple enough for people of all ages to enjoy and challenging enough for the hardcores out there bent on saving every spirit, finding each calabash and collecting every spec of stardust. So pick it up, play it, and feel the soul.