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Soul Bubbles brings Loco Roco to the DS in some style - matching both gloopy physics, and high production values. But more than this it proves that gameplay and controls matter more than visuals.
Although I really enjoy gaming with my kids, I am still a few years away from really being able to 'play' with them. Currently I do more assisting than playing. Whether the controls are too complex, or the motor skills of a three and five year old still have dome developing to do before they are ready, there aren't many games that they can happily play on their own. Buttons in particular seem to cause confusion, both the pressing and holding for acceleration and the left right D-Pad to steer.
For this reason I was excited to get my hands on Soul Bubbles DS. The kids got on really well with Pac 'n Roll DS that exclusively used the stylus for input, and this game seemed to have a similar approach. Our first Saturday morning session with the came was indeed very positive. I was able to set them going on a level and let them work the rest out for themselves - a real success in our family.
As was appreciated by my kids, this results in a simple and direct scheme that becomes intuitive to use.
The game is based on a simple premise - guide the bubble through the maze. The simple task is matched by the control scheme. You direct the bubble using stylus sweeps to blow it the required direction. This control is embellished with the ability to draw new bubbles and slice or shrink existing bubbles. Move that are accessed by holding a direction on the D-Pad and again applied with the stylus.
As was appreciated by my kids, these controls result in a simple and direct scheme that becomes intuitive to use. This is a good thing because the game's environments soon become more challenging. Underground winds, cave wall spikes as well as bubble stealing creatures inject much needed mild peril into later levels. Even here though, the overall feel still manages to remain pretty relaxed. While I progressed on through the game, my kids were more than content to replay earlier levels each evening - our video gaming equivalent of a bed time story.
More experienced players will notice the odd deferential nods from Soul Bubbles towards the exactly Loco Roco on PSP. That game, which tasks you with tilting some amorphous goo-like creates through its mazes, was controlled by a similarly simple scheme - just two buttons. However, I was surprised to find that although my other half really enjoyed playing it, the kids really struggled to make the translation from pressing the buttons to the tilting of the environment. The direction stylus control of Soul Bubbles (although slightly more complex) seems to be easier for them to understand.
I should also mention that this is a great looking game. Time and effort has obviously been spent on getting the physics of the bubbles just right. Whether they are floating around an open cavern, being buffeted by the wind, or squeezing through a small gap they remain believable and eminently tactile. Imagine the cbeebies logo blobs, but here you get to push and poke them around - it really is a lot of fun.
Soul Bubbles proves that it is gameplay that counts - something is has in buckets.
The bubbles exist within environments that have something of an African feel - think more Lion King than tribal paintings here. As you work your way up the level tree (literally a tree) and progress to different zones, the palette and art work also move on. There is certainly sufficient variety here to match the changing challenges of each level.
As I mentioned, there is plenty to do for the experienced gamer too. The difficulty does spike from time to time, but generally things are well paced and encourage open and explorative play. Soul Bubbles duplicates the replayability of the likes of Loco Roco (and in fact Mario platform games) by hiding away many of the collectables in obscure or hard to reach locales. My kids blasted through a level collecting only a fraction of the points. Once they were tucked up in bed I got quite addicted to finding each and every flower and star. Some levels I must have played four or five times before moving on.
Here we have a game that may well slip below the radar of the mainstream press, a real shame as it provides some pretty unique pleasures. Although not as original as Loco Roco PSP, and certainly less graphically impressive, Soul Bubbles proves that it is gameplay that counts - something it has in buckets. It will be interesting to see if Sony adopts any of its ideas back into the upcoming Loco Roco 2. Regardless, for the casual or family audience this is a game that rates up there with Pac n' Roll for accessibility. Something, that if you read us well, you know is high praise indeed.
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