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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Game Review: Soul Bubbles

A masterpiece inside this bubble.



The Good:
Intuitive controls * Each world introduces a new theme on which new puzzles that force you to use your bubbles in different and creative ways are built upon, ensuring that there are always new challenges around the corner * While game gets hard towards the end, it is never cheap * Amazing visuals and music

The Bad:
Game never seems to reward you enough

It’s easy to pass this off as ‘just another one’ given the increasingly huge number of puzzle game garbage that has been taking up unnecessary shelf space in the stores in recent months, but you would be doing yourself a great disservice if you let Soul Bubbles slip out of your sight. While the DS game library does have a rather impressive number of puzzle games, rarely has one been created with the ingeniousness of this game. Soul Bubbles is a definition of an almost perfect DS puzzler – it is the result of what a puzzle game can really accomplish on a DS if developers invest enough passion, effort and thought into their game.

The premise of this game is simple enough. You’re a shaman’s apprentice and you are tasked with transporting some blue glowing spirits. As they are too fragile on their own, they have to be enclosed inside bubbles. These bubbles of spirits can be moved to their destinations by blowing them in the right direction. It may seem easy, but each map is populated by both greedy critters which want to steal the spirits and environmental hazards.

Right after the tutorials, you would be provided with 3 tools that are essential to the navigation of your bubbles through the said obstacles. The tiger mask, when donned, allows you to split your bubbles into smaller portions. This is required when a single bubble is too big to squeeze through a small opening or when you want to split your bubbles up to explore branching pathways. The tiger mask also allows you to join your split bubbles back together and cut a select number of obstacles like sticky tape and vines out of the way. The parrot mask, on the other hand, gives you the ability to draw new bubbles, which are useful for collecting out-of-the-way stardust. These new bubbles can also be joined with current bubbles to make them bigger. The last tool, the elephant mask, allows you to deflate bubbles. This comes in handy when you want to make your bubbles smaller so that you can better handle them. The elephant mask also allows you to deflate empty bubbles and certain enemies.

The sheer variety of action that you can execute to your bubbles may seem intimidating, but the intuitive controls make certain the aforementioned isn’t going to be a problem. You blow your bubbles in the desired course by sliding your stylus in the relevant direction. Moving to a selected location on the map has also been made convenient: you can either slide your stylus along the edge of the screen to move the map or hit the down button on the d-pad to bring down the map and touch the precise area of it where you want to skip to, and the game transports you to that particular location instantly. Each of the different tools has also been mapped appropriately to the d-pad: the right button for the tiger mask, the up button for the parrot mask and the left button for the elephant mask. For lefties, there is the option of using the face buttons as well.

Now that the basic game mechanics have been explained, let’s get down to core of the game itself. While you would expect a puzzle game to be generally consistent in its challenges throughout, which causes it to become pretty stale after a while, the developers of Soul Bubbles think otherwise. There are a total of 8 worlds, each consisting of 5 levels (or maps). The unique thing about Soul Bubbles is that each world has a distinctive theme to it – and each of the themes extends beyond the mere certainty of a different look and feel of each world – and to the puzzles (or obstacles). For instance, the third world introduces fire to the mix of challenges and forces you to play around creatively with water-filled bubbles in order to douse the flames. The fifth world, on the other hand, introduces projectile-shooting abilities to you, opening up the opportunities for inventive puzzles where you need to aim and adjust the angle of your shot precisely from a distance so that your projectile hits a switch which unlocks a barrier. The seventh world marks the entrance of weight-based puzzles as you fill your bubbles with either heavy or light gases to maneuver them through barriers. The result is a game that injects new challenges with increasingly imaginative puzzles every 5 maps, so there’s always something refreshing and surprising around the corner. And never once in my playtime with this game did I feel bored. Few puzzle games can claim to offer this – and that includes puzzle games on other platforms.

With increasingly imaginative puzzles comes an increasingly higher difficulty level as you progress through the game. The first few worlds may be easy, perhaps too easy, but from the fifth world onwards, things grow infuriatingly challenging (and demanding). How else can you explain having to find your bearings in a tightly enclosed maze with spike shooting flutes at every corner? Or pushing your bubble through a tunnel of spikes? However, the game never resorts to being cheap and that is one thing I like about it. If you can’t get through an obstacle, you are either incapable of handling your bubbles with the utmost precision in tight areas or inefficient at dodging that projectile shot at you. Some collectibles in the later worlds are also well hidden or placed in such a way that you have to solve some perplexing puzzles prior to getting to them.

Presentation-wise, Soul Bubbles shines as well. As far as 2D backgrounds are concerned, this is the best. They are one of the most beautiful you will ever find on the DS – and when paired with elegant effects like the graceful ‘swoosh’ of flower petals as the wind descends upon them, there is no doubt that the visuals here are in a league of their own. The calm and soothing music feels really right at home here – it brings an air of insouciance to the gameplay, and ends up capturing the entire feel of the game perfectly. On its own, it is worth listening to as well.

The only gripe I have with this game is that it doesn’t seem to reward you enough. There are stardust and calabash to collect, but even if you fail to collect all, or even collect any at all, the game allows you to progress. Those who do manage to collect every nook and cranny present in each map aren’t rewarded with anything special – it’s just a trophy with a grade, your timing and statistics, no questions asked. May I ask what’s the point of putting in effort to try to gather everything in each map then? The lack of online leaderboards of some sort, while not necessary, would have been a nice touch too.

But do note that these gripes are not really complains. What I am doing here is – quite simply, nit-picking. Soul Bubbles is by far the best puzzle game on the DS – it is a good DS game – it is a very good game.

Final Comments
Really good puzzle games for the DS are hard to come by these days, so when one really comes by, you should grab it. Soul Bubbles is the quintessence of a good DS puzzler: it rethinks of what the DS is really capable of with its touch screen, builds a concept around it, and adds in some really creative ideas. To complete the icing on the cake, it throws in some really high presentation values. So there you have: a masterpiece that must never be missed. If you have a DS, you MUST get this game. Its box art may be misleading but you should know not to judge the book by its cover. This is a certain contender for DS puzzle game of the year. That says it all.


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