Version tested: DS
Ah, the herding sub-genre. Game developers' desire for us to chivvy things to a hazard-strewn destination knows no bounds, resulting in some of the quirkiest games of all time, including DMA's thoroughly evil Lemmings, Mind's Eye's super-cute (but completely overlooked) Sheep, and Core Design's curious Disney experiment Herdy Gerdy. Then, a couple of years back, LocoRoco's joyous tilt-based approach took the whole herding premise off on a rather squishy, cosmic tangent, where the life-forms were a gospel choir of space hoppers.
Soul Bubbles reprises LocoRoco's necessity to squish a gang of precious things down organic mazy environments, but appears to have removed lysergic acid diethylamide and the power of song from the development process. That's no bad thing, because this delightfully soothing puzzler has enough tricks of its own - like its excellent touch-screen controls - to deliver its own equally desirable take on the formula.
Despite the improbable premise of you being some sort of daft spirit-herder who can draw bubbles around your cargo and blow them along by sweeping the stylus across the screen, and despite perhaps being hampered by a too-gentle learning curve in the initial stages, Soul Bubbles is an effortlessly charming game right from the off, and keeps you coming back for more in bite-sized chunks, just as any handheld title worth its salt ought to do.
Each of the dozens of levels in the game kicks off the same way. You hold up on the d-pad (or use the face buttons if you're a leftie) to invoke the draw command, and then encircle the little gaggle of 'spirits' so that you can give them a vessel in which you can then blow them around the side-scrolling 2D environments.
Just like in LocoRoco, you'll find yourself squeezing them through narrow passages and trying to avoid all manner of hazards. In such circumstances, a combination of deft strokes and use of the other d-pad commands tends to see you through. You might, for example, simply want to deflate the bubble slightly, and that involves little more than pressing the d-pad left and pointing at the appropriate bubble. In other situations, though, the gap is simply too tight, and you have to slice through the bubble and split it up, then blow several smaller bubbles through the gap. Rejoining them is as simple as repeating the process.
En route to your goal, you'll gather up as much stardust as you can, and occasionally stumble across little yellow blobs in the further recesses of each level. Known as 'Calabash', these become important to gather up in order to unlock the final eighth world, and lend a vital element of replayability to the whole game.
Likewise, getting all seven of your spirits to the level exit is also important, as each world requires that you get at least 15 of them home safely before the next world unlocks. That said, it's not a foregone conclusion the further you progress, because the sheer volume and diversity of hazards ramps up exponentially as you go along. To begin with, you might simply have to avoid spikes, fire, pesky birds or nasty frogs with their flicky-sticky tongues. Dealing with them is as intuitive as you might imagine; swatting birds away is as simple as tapping them. Putting a fire out might involve drawing a bubble in a nearby pool, and blowing it to the fire itself, while stopping a pesky frog in its tracks will involve slicing its tongue off.