Soul Bubbles

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Mekensleep for DS, originally released in 2008.

Title
Console
Publisher
Developer
Players
Year
Soul Bubbles
DS
Eidos Interactive Ltd.
Mekensleep
1P
2008


CONTEXT
Soul Bubbles was created by French developer Mekensleep, and released in the U.S. and Europe in the summer of 2008, and then released in Japan about a year later, with the title of Awatama. In the United States, the game was sold exclusively in Toys ‘R’ Us stores.



The biggest difference between the U.S. and Japanese versions of the game is the design of the main character. In the U.S. version, the player controls a naked, sexless cherub-like creature wearing a scarf. In the Japanese version, the character is clothed and has purple hair, and has a more cute look overall.


Development for an iPhone port was handed over to French developer, Eurocenter, which is a company that focuses primarily on online portable games


PREMISE
The player controls a young Spirit Herder who is tasked with escorting spirits (souls) through dangerous environments, wrapped in protective bubbles. The game also includes a humorous disclaimer before its title screen, letting players know that this is not your standard kill-everything-that-moves violence-fest:

Disclaimer

This game does not depict any of the following objects or events:
* Licensed racing cars *
* Post-apocalyptic soldiers *
* Elfs, orcs, or magicians *
* Gang fights *

Please do not panic!
It’s all gonna be hunky dory…








CONTROLS


Hold RIGHT on the D-pad (or A) to use the Tiger Mask

Hold UP on the D-pad (or X) to use the Bird Mask

Hold LEFT on the D-pad (or Y) to use the Elephant Mask

Hold DOWN on the D-pad (or B) to bring the map down onto the touch screen, where you can use the stylus to navigate to different sections of the level. (Note: this input is misprinted in the instruction manual, which indicates that you should press UP on the D-pad to perform this action.)

The stylus is used in conjunction with all masks to perform the different moves that are available for them (as outlined in the MECHANICS section below). In addition, tap-and-drag controls are used to blow the bubbles, and various combinations of screen-tapping or use of masks allows you to fight enemies.


MECHANICS
As the game begins, you find yourself in control of a Spirit Herder apprentice, and once you complete 3 training levels, you become a full-blown Spirit Herder who must “guide the spirits of suffering creatures toward serenity.” This may sound like a fairly heavy premise for a game that is otherwise presented in a light tone with bright colors and joyful music. In the end, it just means that you’ll be escorting floaty white lights from one end of a level to the other, wrapped in a protective bubble.

To get you acclimated to the controls, the game starts you out with limited abilities, but soon you are given a set of 3 masks, which is what you will use to manipulate the environment and your soul bubble throughout the game. The game gives you constant hints about which masks you might need to use in a given situation, and there are “all-knowing stones” in certain areas that provide additional detailed hints as to how to solve a particular puzzle. To use each of the masks, you must press and hold the corresponding direction on the D-pad, or use the corresponding face buttons if you are a lefty.






The first mask is the Tiger mask, which allows you to slice your bubble up into smaller bubbles, and to join adjacent bubbles together. When bubbles are adjacent to one another, they stick together, but they can be split apart by objects in the environment, enemies, or by simply blowing them in different directions. This tool is required for navigating tight corridors in which the full-size bubble cannot fit. Unfortunately, slicing off a portion of a bubble with just 1 spirit in it can be a bit imprecise, and you’ll often simply slice off an empty section of your main bubble. Using a single spirit is desirable in some areas when you wish to navigate through a narrow passage, or if you wish to explore the path ahead without risking all of your spirits at once.



The second mask is the Bird mask, which allows you to draw bubbles with the stylus. You will use this skill at the beginning of each level to draw a bubble around the spirits that need to be escorted. You will also need to act quickly if one of your bubbles is popped, and draw a new bubble around the spirits to protect them. Distressed spirits will turn a bright shade of pink so that you can find them easily, and an indicator will appear showing you their direction if they are off the side of the screen. If spirits are left in the open environment for too long, they will dissolve. You are able to draw large or small bubbles, and some puzzles are solved by using a certain sized bubble in a given area. You may also use this mask in combination with the Tiger mask to draw a new bubble and join it to an existing bubble to increase its size.



The final mask is the Elephant mask, which allows you to deflate bubbles to shrink them in size, or to pop them altogether. A spirit-filled bubble has a minimum size, and the spirits inside will begin to show distress (by changing in to shaking triangles) if you attempt to shrink the bubble down too far. If you pop the bubble, you will need to use the Bird mask to recapture the spirits before they disappear. This mask is mainly used to ensure that you have an optimally sized bubble, and to pop any extra empty bubbles that you no longer need.







Bubbles are moved about the environment by using the breath of the Spirit Herder to blow on them. The Herder is represented as a rather unimpressive-looking 3D object, which is an odd design choice given that the rest of the world is represented by some very nice 2D art. So, unfortunately, the ugliest thing you’ll be looking at while you play the game your own character.



You can move the Spirit Herder around the screen by tapping on any location, and he’ll zip instantly to that spot. Hold your stylus on the Herder and slide it away, and he’ll start to blow. The further you move the stylus, the harder he’ll blow. Hold it for too long, however, and he’ll turn red and eventually lose his breath for a moment, forcing you to wait for a short while before he can blow again. You’ll need to be aware of this “blow limit”, particularly if you’re trying to blow soul bubbles against a strong current. By letting off of the BLOW command for just a bit – rather than using it continuously – you can avoid having the Herder run out of breath.



Fortunately, the Herder will automatically follow whatever bubble he is blowing at the time. This prevents situations where you might blow the bubble offscreen and then be forced to catch back up with it. You can move freely through the environment by dragging your stylus to the edge of the touch screen and scrolling it in any direction, or you can use the map to jump to a specific location. This is useful when you’re attempting to navigate through the environment or complete a puzzle where you need to have more than one bubble in play. Unfortunately, the game lacks a jump-to-bubble option, so if you do leave your soul bubble behind for any reason, you will have to find it on the map and manually move yourself back to it.



The top screen shows a map of the environment, but it starts out completely black at the beginning of each level, slowly drawing itself as you explore the area. You can swap the map screen down onto the touch screen and use it to navigate the Spirit Herder to any point in the level. However, any spot that you have not yet explored will be completely dark. The environment is only lit by blowing bubbles filled with spirits. If you draw an empty bubble and blow it around, the darkness will not be removed, and if you blow the bubble into the darkness, it will eventually pop on its own. However, you can – and often must – draw empty bubbles to access “stardust” that is hidden on the far side of solid objects.



There is a certain amount of stardust in each level, and you are rewarded at the end of the level based on how much of it you collect, along with your completion time, the number of surviving spirits, and the number calabash found (we’ll get to that in a moment). Stardust is collected by blowing your bubble through it, and it doesn’t matter if the bubble has a spirit in it or not. Small bits of stardust are worth 1, and large red ones are worth 10. The large red bits are generally surrounded by a ring of smaller ones, and are often tucked away slightly off the main path. The pause screen shows the total amount of stardust in the area, and a chime sounds when you get 100% of them in a given level. You can certainly attempt to collect all of the stardust for completion’s sake and for a better end-of-level ranking, but it’s primarily in place to lead you through the level’s “main” path, and show you where you should be going. Of course, you are invited and expected to go off the beaten path from time to time, especially when hunting for calabash.



Each level contains 3 hidden gourd-like objects called calabash. These objects can only be collected with a spirit-filled bubble, not an empty one. In early levels, calabash are simply tucked away in offshoot paths, but in later levels, you’ll be expected to do some serious environmental navigation and puzzle-solving to access them. As you get close to a calabash (even if it’s hidden on the far side of a wall), the spirits in your bubble will turn into hearts and begin to move excitedly about. This is your cue to search the area. You will need to collect a total of 50 in order to unlock the final level, so some calabash hunting is required. You can also replay any level if you would like to go back and check for ones that you may have missed.

The goal of each level is called the Gateway Cube. Pass your soul bubble in front of the cube and it will pop and release all of its spirits into the cube. Once all of the active spirits in the level have been deposited, you’ll get the end-of-level tally showing your ranking. Any spirits that were killed in action will be shown flying about on the final screen in pink, the color of a distressed spirit. You can complete any level by rescuing a single spirit, and even if you do manage to get them all killed, you are simply sent back to the beginning of the level. You’ll also get statements depending on things you did in the level. For instance, if you make it through a level without harming any enemies or slicing any vegetation, you’ll get a “Nature lover” declaration at the end of the level.

There is some freedom to the order in which you can access levels. Each new area has 5 levels, for a total level count of 40 (not including the tutorial or unlockable bonus levels). In almost all cases, completing level 1 will open up levels 2 and 3, and completing each of these levels opens up another. For the most part, each area introduces its new mechanics and enemies in the first level, and offers slight variations through the next 4. The difficulty progression is pretty shallow from one end to the other, so level 5 is never substantially more difficult than level 1.



The world is divided up into 8 areas, most of which are themed after different parts of the real world (Africa, South America, etc.). Once you deliver enough spirits to the Gateway Cube in one area, the next will be opened, which is explained by stating that you’ve rescued a number of spirits who know the way to the next area. You may proceed directly to the next area if you wish, or complete the levels in the current area so that you may rescue additional spirits and collect calabash.



There are some interesting physics at work in the manipulation of the bubble, and most of the game is built around this fact. When a bubble is blown against a solid surface, it compresses and spreads out. When you blow the bubble toward a narrow passage, it will change shape and squeeze through the space, unless the bubble is too large, in which case you’ll need to use the elephant mask to deflate it, or the tiger mask to split it into smaller bubbles. Air and water currents push the bubble around, and it can bounce off of solid surfaces. It can also be compressed or cut by moving objects that slam down to block your path or push you around. Of course, the bubble can also be popped by spikes and certain enemies, in which case you’ll need to use the bird mask to re-draw a bubble around the distressed spirits before they disappear.



There are several different types of enemies, referred to as “evil spirits” by the game, although they are all quite corporeal. Most enemies can be killed by tapping on them with the stylus, although later levels introduce enemies that require more advanced techniques, which are outlined below. Destroyed enemies will fall to the ground and sprout up as flowers. These flowers stay in place, and you can even use the Herder to blow the petals off of them. Each area offers different enemies and challenges, with some even offering entirely new gameplay.



Area 1: Tir Tairngire: Where the wind blows (World of the ancient Druidic Forest)
In the beginning levels of the game, you’ll encounter some basic enemies that you’ll see again and again throughout your adventure. Birds will simply grab your bubble and fly away with it, potentially pulling it into danger. Mosquitoes extract spirits from your bubble and fly away with them. A frog can shoot out its tongue and grab your bubble, and if it manages to hold on long enough, it will kill one of the spirits within. To bypass the frog, you will need to use the tiger mask to slice off its tongue and free your bubble… but its tongue inexplicably grows back after a few seconds, so you can’t hang around for too long.



Environmental navigation starts out fairly basic as well, giving you a chance to see how currents affect your movement, offering up barriers that can be broken with the stylus, and even presenting some opal mines where you move in complete darkness, watching the deformation of your bubble to determine where the path leads.



Area 2: Altjeringa: Where the earth itches (World of Aboriginal Dreamtime)
In the desert-themed Area 2, you will be introduced to monkey-like creatures called Itjaritjar. The Itjaritjar can grab your bubble and pull it down into its hole, spitting it out elsewhere in the level. Usually, this places you back in a earlier section of the level and causes you to lose some progress, but other times it can lead to a hidden calabash, or even be used as a means of progression in later levels. These enemies cannot be killed, but they can be stunned momentarily by tapping them with the stylus, which gives you an opportunity to blow your bubble away from their holes.



Area 3: Tomo-Kahni: Where water meets fire (World of Native American Shamanism)
Area 3 introduces you to some fire and water puzzles. You can blow your bubble through the water, but it has a tendency to float back up to the surface, so you’ll need to keep blowing it down. In this area, you’ll also encounter puffer fish that will pop your bubble while they are inflated, but you can use the elephant mask to deflate them temporarily so that you can pass safely.



Fire will, of course, pop your bubble if you fly into it. However, a mixture of the two elements allows for some new gameplay. First off, you can draw a bubble under the water, which creates a water-filled bubble. Then you can fly this bubble up to the fire, where it will pop, dropping the water from the bubble and extinguishing the fire. This is used for some basic path opening.



A more advanced version of this puzzle involves a hopping fire-based enemy. By using the same strategy, you can drop a water-filled bubble on it to extinguish it. However, it will not simply disappear, but will become inert. After a few seconds it will begin to light up and shake, and then it will explode. You can use the enemy’s downtime to draw a bubble around it and fly it through the environment. Then can you press it up against a breakable wall and wait for it to detonate and clear the obstruction.



Area 4: Quivira: Where the enigma sticks (World of South American Shamanism)
This area is filled with green snot-like walls that cause your bubble to stick to them, thus slowing you down. There are also a lot of dart-blowing enemies in this area that will use your restricted movement as an opportunity to fire at you and pop your bubble. This area also has a number of navigation-based puzzles where you’re fighting against the push of driving rain, splitting bubbles to depress 2 buttons simultaneously, and solving a wind current maze where choosing the wrong path will push you back to the beginning (which unfortunately requires a lot of trial and error).



Area 5: Oyoruba: Where Spirits retaliate (World of African Shamanism)
So you’ve hit the halfway mark, and the gameplay hasn’t changed tremendously up to this point, so you may be expecting a continued slow escalation throughout the remainder of your experience. Well, from here on out, you’ll be regularly encountering new gameplay that drastically changes how you complete the levels, and thus breathes a new life into the second half of the game.

Area 5 introduces some indestructible enemies and obstacles. No amount of stylus-tapping, deflating, or slicing will clear them from your path. However, shortly thereafter you encounter a plant bearing a red fruit, and you are instructed to draw a bubble around it. Doing so disconnects the fruit from the plant, and allows you to push it freely through the environment. Blow it against your spirit-filled bubble and join them together, and now you can shoot “psycho seeds”! That’s right, you now have a projectile weapon. Most of the obstacles and enemies in this area are overcome by using it, thus making this area much more action-based than any before it.



To fire a psycho seed, you place your stylus in the center of the bubble and draw away from it. The faster you move, the further the projectile will be fired. The psycho seed ability lasts a good while – about 30 seconds – which generally gives you enough time to clear the enemies and obstacles from one section before encountering another fruit-bearing plant, but if your bubble is popped at any point, you will lose your ability and will need to backtrack to pick up another fruit. Of note is the fact that your bubble takes on a standard size when using the psycho seed ability, and cannot be inflated or deflated. You also cannot see the spirits inside the bubble, as they are instead replaced by the color of the fruit. As such, they will not change into hearts when you are near a hidden calabash, so you must still temper some of your action-based gameplay with exploration.

There are 3 different colored fruits, each of which allows you to fire a different type of projectile:
  • Red fruit allows you to fire seeds in an arc and they are affected by gravity. A slow drag of the stylus will send the seed a short distance away from the bubble, after which it will fall to the ground. This strategy is sometimes required to fire over walls so that you may destroy enemies on the other side. The more quickly you drag the stylus, the further the projectile will fly, thus reducing gravity’s impact on its trajectory.
  • Purple fruit allows you to fire shots that ricochet around the environment. These seeds are also used to solve some environmental puzzles by allowing you to fire seeds into an area where your bubble cannot enter, deflecting them off the walls to activate switches and open doors. Of course, this version of the weapon is quite effective in tightly enclosed environments and can kill enemies around corners.
  • Blue fruit allows you to fire an exploding seed. When the seed travels a certain distance or makes contact with an enemy, it will explode into 5 more bullets, which will fall slowly toward the ground before disappearing after a couple of seconds. These falling shots can potentially damage enemies, and are great for use against swarms that close in around you.



Each of these projectiles can be fired as rapidly as you can move the stylus, and they have unlimited ammunition for as long as the timer lasts. If you drag a fruit of the same color into your bubble, the timer is reset, and you will once again have about 30 seconds of firing time. If you drag in a fruit of a different color, your bubble will change to that color instead, and again the timer will be reset. To gain a bit of extra time, you can blow a spirit-filled bubble and a fruit-filled bubble together and wait until you need the projectile ability before you join the two together. However, the fruit-bearing plants appear fairly frequently, and the fruit grows back, so this tactic is generally not required. Still, you don’t want to be left without the ability to fire if you’re near an enemy swarm. One other note is that picked fruits do not grow back until your timer has run out, so you can’t activate one of them and then take a second from the same plant.



Area 6: Pemako: Where heavy becomes light (World of Asian Shamanism)
Area 6 changes the gameplay again, removing the projectile-based gameplay and replacing it with gravity-based gameplay. In this area, there are two types of gas-emitting spouts. One emits blue gas, and the other emits purple. If you fill a bubble with purple gas, it will sink quickly to the ground, pulled down by gravity. If you fill a bubble with blue gas, it will fly upward like a helium balloon.




There are lots of curtain-like barriers in Area 6, which can only be destroyed by a gas-filled bubble. When you encounter one of these curtains, a spot on the map will light up, showing you where a gas-emitting spout can be found. These are usually a good distance away from your position. You’ll have to jump the Herder to that location, fill a bubble with gas, and then navigate the dangerous path back to the curtain to tear it. Of course, the heavy bubble will drag along the ground, and the blue bubble will drag across the ceiling, and you’ll have obstacles to avoid in both places.



There’s an eyeball enemy that emerges from a plant (an eyeball plant, presumably) when you are nearby, and shoots your bubble with a laser. When this happens, it changes the color of the gas in your bubble, potentially sending you into danger. More often than not, however, the gas-changing enemy is required for you to successfully navigate the environment. But if you don’t want it to shoot at you, you can tap it with the stylus to temporarily disable it.



Gas bubbles can be used to turn cranks and push objects, and you even have a couple of situations where both a light and heavy bubble must be used in unison in order to get through an environmental puzzle. There are also several instances where you will encounter sticky ropes that are hanging over pits of spikes. You will need to carefully navigate from one sticky rope to the next, wait until you are connected to two of them at once, and then cut the first one to swing away to safety.



If you join a purple and blue bubble together, the gas will turn yellow, and the bubble will become highly explosive. Explosive bubbles can be used to destroy impassible walls, but they can also be detonated accidentally by simply ramming them into solid objects. There are even a couple of chase scenes in this area where an indestructible fishlike creature called The Invincible Burug will follow you through the environment, attempting to destroy your bubble – or cause you to destroy it accidentally in your haste to evade the enemy – before you can reach your destination.



Gas bubbles provide light, and this is the only time in the game where a non-spirit-filled bubble can light up the environment. However, they still cannot be used to grab calabash, and they cannot be combined with your spirit-filled bubble, because the gas harms the spirits and pops the bubble.


Area 7: Anirniit: Where speed breaks the ice (Frozen world of Inuit Shamanism)
And once again, the game changes. Area 7 is a frozen environment, and whenever you draw a bubble, it freezes and sinks to the ground. This is somewhat similar to the heavy gas bubbles from the previous section, except that your bubble retains a rigid round shape. And so, it acts like a rolling ball. Each of the levels is set up with ramps, bumpers, and loops, which is very reminiscent of the level designs in Sonic the Hedgehog.



Unlike the slower and more deliberate pace of the previous levels, these play out at high speed as you rip through the levels like a rampaging roller coaster. There are pinball-like plungers (represented by polar bears frozen in the ice) that send you flying quickly away, electrical balls that spin you around until you fling yourself off, and blocks of ice that you can smash through at high speeds. You’ll even topple rows of penguins like bowling pins. Most of the time, you’ll be rolling downhill or sailing through the air from one platform to the next, so slowing down is actually pretty difficult. As such, you can complete the levels very quickly, but you’ll have to try extra hard if you want to explore the side paths.



The levels have numerous Itjaritjar that can pull you back into previous sections of the level. You can, of course, simply fly right past them or tap to temporarily disable them, but they are often the only way for you to backtrack through the environment, since you can’t blow your bubble very far uphill. Calabash are still hidden off the beaten path, and if you wish to find them all, you’ll need to slow down to take alternate paths, let yourself be purposely abducted by Itjaritjar, or drop yourself down into the water (where movement is slowed somewhat).



Area 8: Agartha: Where death awaits… (Land of the Dead)
The 8th and final area mixes gameplay and enemies from all of the previous levels. You’ll find enemies in much greater numbers, deadly pits of fire, and a new bomb-like enemy with a lit fuse that must be cut before it can explode and pop your bubble. You’ll even have a mix of multiple elements in one level, such as the level that lets you take a frozen bubble (in black ice) and mix it with blue gas… making it a floating ice bubble.

The level progression is slightly different here than in the previous 7 areas. Completing the first level opens up levels 2-4, which may be completed in any order, but they must all be completed before the final level is opened. The final level forces you to utilize a number of different puzzle solutions, as each of your 7 spirits is in a different location at the beginning of the level. There’s also a huge snake with a body spread through the center of the level, and it pushes you around as it slides forward. Sadly, this is not a precursor to a boss fight, and getting all of the spirits up to the head of the snake reveals one last Gateway Cube, and the ending cinematic.

As you complete areas, and eventually complete the game, you will open up several unlockables. These include the in-game cinematics, concept art, a “making of” slideshow, and even a couple of bonus levels in an entirely new art style.




BASTARD CLASS ENEMIES (What's this?)
Swarms Enemy swarms appear primarily in Area 5, and they are a pain to deal with. For one, enemy swarms can materialize out of thin air, so you are often just traveling casually through an area when a group of enemies suddenly appears around you and starts attacking your bubble (granted, there are some environmental clues as to where these swarms will appear, but they are designed to ambush you). Secondly, they can only be killed with projectiles, so good luck if you don’t have any active psycho seeds, or if the powerup timer is about to run down, because you’re not going to be able to move much while being attacked. And finally, if you don’t manage to kill enough of the swarm in time, your bubble will be popped, and one of your spirits will be instantly killed. So basically, if you enter a swarm unprepared, you can expect to come away with one less spirit. These enemies are soul-sucking jerks.


BOSSES
There are no bosses in this game, but as the intro states “Please do not panic! It’s all gonna be hunky dory…”


HERITAGE

Why this game should be part of your 2D heritage:
  • The game is centered around intricate and interesting bubble mechanics, allowing for unique puzzles and environmental challenges
  • Large variety in gameplay from level to level
  • Laid back presentation, as represented by colorful well-drawn environments, atmospheric music, and a low penalty for failure

The downside:
  • Ugly 3D model for main character
  • No instant jump-to-bubble option
  • It can be difficult to split off just 1 spirit

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