What happens when you die? Well, besides the obvious. Humanity’s great equalizer is its greatest mystery. Do you believe in the afterlife? If so, where do you think you’re going? The answers vary widely amongst the various religions and societies. Will you be eternally glorified in Valhalla, or face the wrath of Hades? Maybe you’ll be reborn as someone else, or be dragged away into the abyss by the Grim Reaper. There’s the choice between heading toward the light, or allowing yourself to be tempted into darkness. But what really happens? The minds behind Soul Bubbles think they’ve answered that timeless question. But rather than focusing on your final destination, this game focuses on what’s arguably the most important part: how you get there.
Don’t get your hopes up, though. There’s nothing epic or mind-blowingly awesome about this game’s take on the afterlife. You’ll never get to see what really awaits all the souls of the recently deceased. Instead, your job is to gather them into groups and guide them to the next stop along the long journey into the great beyond. You’re not some badass shinigami, let alone some shrouded, scythe-wielding form that’s supposed to represent death. Rather, you’re just the latest in a long line of otherworldly interns getting ready for your first real gig. It kind of makes sense, if you think about it; considering how many people die every second, the folks in charge would need a huge staff just to keep things organized. After a few hands-on training exercises, you’ll be given permission to ferry human souls out of the mortal realm.
Of course, all that really means is that you’re stuck with what has to be the most glorified escort mission ever conceived. Your only job is to make sure the souls under your care get from Point A to Point B. Human souls are surprisingly vulnerable; after they’ve departed their respective bodies, they float aimlessly into the sky. They can’t even survive in the open air, either. You’ll have to use your mystical Grim Reaper trainee abilities to keep them alive. Of course, you don’t have access to all the cool spells that the regulars have; instead, all you can do is draw bubbles onscreen as protective shields for the souls, then blow them in any given direction. You can manipulate the sizes of the bubbles by inflating them (you don’t have to use the DS’s microphone for it, thankfully) or using the stylus to combine or cut them up into smaller shapes. It’s up to you to then blow them toward a small monolith that serves as a gateway to the next life.
That’s it. No, seriously.
The road to the afterlife is a bumpy one, however. As you make your way to the dimensional gate, you’ll have to contend with several hazards that plague the physical realm. You’ll have to carefully avoid puffer fish monsters, swat down monstrous mosquitoes, dodge past moving walls and falling rocks, and deal with jets of fire that spew out from cleverly-placed holes in the ground. The levels are practically teeming with things that can pop your oh-so fragile magic bubbles. The trick is learning how to utilize the stylus to deal with the hazards. Take one of those flame jets for example; it might take a few incinerated souls for you to realize that you need to stop forcing your way through and focus on putting the fire out instead. You’ll end up ditching your ethereal charges for a few seconds while you go scout around the level for some water, carry it back inside another floating bubble, and using it for its intended purpose. This simple and straightforward method of puzzle solving underscores the secondary element of the gameplay: exploration. Since you can only see parts of a level that you’ve actually visited with your souls, you’re going to be cramming your little buddies into every nook and cranny in an attempt to find pickups, collectibles, and shortcuts. Your efforts will be paid off with a graded high score and unlockable levels. Though the game might seem a little too easy and brief at first glance, later areas and their respective puzzles might give you a decent run for your money.
While all this exploration and small-time puzzle solving might sound tedious, the responsiveness of the controls and the gameplay physics more than make up for it. All you really have to do is tap the direction in which you want to blow, and your little avatar keep at his work until he‘s literally left wheezing from overexertion. The stylus commands aren‘t as horribly demanding as other games (Trauma Center veterans ought to know all about that), which makes it easy to pick up and play. Getting rid of onscreen enemies usually involves nothing more than tapping them a few times or drawing a line to make a cut. While these actions require minimal effort, you’re going to be performing them dozens of times within a given level; you might have to hack and slash your way through sticky seaweed or not-so surgically remove a hungry frog’s tongue. The bubbles not only seep into cracks and press against curved walls, but bounce and flatten against obstacles, churn along with water currents, and float aimlessly like their real-life counterparts. It’s hardly realistic – no soapy orb could ever stand up to the punishment that these bubbles take – but the efforts taken shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Based on the flowing, fluid gameplay mechanics, seasoned gamers might compare this title with the PSP’s LocoRoco. While it might sound similar on paper, Soul Bubbles relies far less on flashy artistic visuals. Rather, it focuses more on developing the atmosphere and setting. Each of the levels has their own theme, be it drifting through the woods surrounding a Native American village, exploring the weathered Aztec ruins of Central America, and several other remote places. But the game doesn’t just settle for teepees and statues; you’ll be able to see the leafs blown along the screen, the slight rustling of the bushes, and the realistic coloring of the ancient buildings. The music, which is mostly instrumental and low-key by itself, is augmented with surprisingly high-quality audio effects. It’s so serene that you can hear the birds cawing offscreen, the bugs humming away, and the wind gusting through the trees. You’ll be able to hear the thundering crash of a waterfall long before you actually see it. It’s this quiet, relaxing presentation that allows you to sit back and enjoy the tasks at hand.
It’s kind of sad, when you think about it. Soul Bubbles is one of those games that will be inevitably passed up in favor of the more popular and established titles. It’ll probably languish on the shelves for a few months before being demoted to the bargain bin, doomed to be ignored like so many other games that aren’t so mainstream. A shame, considering how this game makes some of the best and most interactive use of the touch screen since Kirby Canvas Curse. The simple, easy-to-learn controls balance out the progressively difficult puzzles. The emphasis on exploration and item collecting means you’re going to spend plenty of time going over individual levels with care. The great presentation – especially the audio effects – makes superb use of the handheld’s capabilities. So if you happen to come across this hidden gem in the DS’s library, do yourself a favor and give it a shot. This game ensures that blowing bubbles is no longer just a childhood pastime.