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DS Fanboy Review: Soul Bubbles

Tranquility is a difficult feeling to convey in games. Most video games are, by their nature, conflict-heavy -- obstacles get in the way of whatever activity you're trying to do, and you have to struggle in some way to overcome them. Sometimes this manifests as fighting, sometimes it's puzzle-solving, but it almost always results in a sort of tension that can't be resolved until the successful completion of a challenge. Tranquility in most games would translate into stagnation and boredom. Mekensleep's Soul Bubbles manages, somehow, to balance a pervasive tranquility with an appropriate level of challenge -- it's challenging, but relaxing at the same time. And it's completely beautiful.

I struggle to think of anything at all that is wrong with this game. At the risk of sounding like an overly soft reviewer, Soul Bubbles is a masterpiece, with evidence of loving thought in everything that goes on the screen(s).

Gallery: Soul Bubbles

While Soul Bubbles nominally puts you in the role of the shaman who controls the wind to move a giant bubble full of glowing spirits, the way the camera centers on the bubble and the tiny shaman character flits around the screen make the bubble seem like the central character that you're controlling. Using wind created by moving the stylus in the direction of your choice, you push the bubble through tunnels, between branches, and into tiny passages in an effort to get the spirits to their destination at the end of the level. Along the way, you must diverge from the main path to find three "Calabash" per level. Pick up enough Calabash and you unlock another level.

You start off able only to push the bubble, but, one at a time, new mechanics are introduced over the course of the whole game. You learn to split bubbles to make them easier to move through small openings, rejoin them, and inflate and deflate bubbles. As the game progresses, you learn to create new bubbles to reach inaccessible areas, and you're shown other puzzle-solving abilities including capturing exploding enemies inside a bubble for use as bombs, filling bubbles with water to put out fires, and using heavy and light gases to affect bubble movement.

The slow build of complexity allows the player to appreciate and master each new mechanic before the next one is introduced. It's a simple shortcut to a perfectly-executed difficulty curve. And curve it does: the first two levels are pleasant and enjoyable, but seemingly impossible to do anything but succeed in; as the game goes on, the mazes become more intricate, the Calabash better-hidden, and your progress is blocked by environmental puzzles, timing-based obstacles, and increasingly persistent enemies. Soul Bubbles never gets truly difficult, but it gets more involved as you do.

After learning pretty much everything to do in the game, the last world adds one final twist that almost entirely changes the feel of the game: cold. The bubble freezes, and suddenly you're playing Soul Bubbles the Hedgehog, guiding a rapidly-rolling ball through swirling, icy tunnels.

click here to see another trailer

This elegantly-designed gameplay is accompanied by uniquely beautiful visuals. The levels range from lavish green forests to glowing caves, made beautiful not by fancy effects, but just by good art exemplified by subtly beautiful touches. Exaggerated rays of light stream between leaves, for example, and your spirits turn to brightly-illuminated pink hearts in the presence of Calabash. It's clear that a lot of workmanship went into everything displayed onscreen.

If there is a problem with Soul Bubbles, it is only that there isn't enough Soul Bubbles. It's a fairly quick play, and, except for hunting for Calabash you missed the first time, there's no real motivation to replay it other than pure enjoyment. However, you probably will replay it for pure enjoyment. Soul Bubbles is a wonderful game that deserves better than Toys R Us exclusivity.

Final score: 9/10

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