We're back in the realm of bright, colourful 2D platform games with Soul Bubbles, except in this case we're not running and jumping and bouncing on people's heads; we're floating around in bubbles drawn with the stylus.
As a junior shaman, you transport little floating souls to the end of a mazy level by using the stylus to encircle them in soapy iridescence, before blowing them around by nudging the bubble with the stylus - an action which manifests itself as puffs of wind on-screen.
To create a bubble, you hold up on the d-pad (or X on the face buttons if you're left-handed), and draw a circle on the screen. The bubble shape doesn't match your exact circle outline, Pac-Pix style, but it does match the diameter, and you can then hold another button and drag the stylus across the bubble to deflate it. Alternatively, you can segment it with another button/stylus-dragging combo.
These moves are helpful because the levels are warrens of narrow pathways, switch-gates and obstacles. In fact, there are tons of hazards - frogs that grab you with prehensile tongues, little lizards who emerge from holes in the ground and drag you down, creepers to entangle your bubble, and air flows that push you in directions you don't want to go. There are also plain old spikes, and evil birds.
Fortunately you can apply your cutting move - the one that segments the bubble - to objects in the environment, chopping off the frog's tongue, and hacking your way through the creepers, while other enemies and obstacles give way to prods from the stylus or rubbing motions. Although a lot of the solutions are laid on for you by basic actions, figuring out what you're being asked to do based on graphics and surroundings is pleasant, and there will be new unlockable moves to expand the repertoire.
As with the platform games that are tangentially its contemporaries, Soul Bubbles has lots of collectibles - little floating jewels that are pretty abundant, and the rarer calabash (gourd-like fruit; we looked it up), which are more elaborately concealed, and can be found by paying attention to your bubbled souls. When a calabash is nearby, they will morph from little blue and white blobs to throbbing hearts to alert you, and a bit of probing at the level edges should set you on your way.
To assist you in your search, the DS' top screen is used for a 2D map, Castlevania-style, revealing the layout of the level as you carve it out of the gloom, and showing you the location of bubbles. By holding down on the d-pad (or the B button), the map and gameplay screens switch places so you can use the stylus to drag the viewing area around the map. You can create bubbles anywhere to explore, providing you keep an eye on your souls and don't let them get knocked around while you're off probing.
During our hands-on, we were able to explore a trio of levels from different sections of the game, demonstrating the graphical variation across some of its eight worlds, host to more than 40 levels in total. Graphically everything is clearly defined, and a bit Pikmin-esque in places, with mushroom switches, moving log doorways and fluttering fauna.
All this would be for nothing if you struggled to manoeuvre the bubble, but you don't; it "handles" very well. The quick acceleration away from gusts, and gradual deceleration as the still air cushions its movement, is just right. It's a simple-looking game, but playing it, it's not hard to believe publisher Eidos' claim that it stretches the DS' physics capabilities.
It's rare for a third-party publisher to make a big deal about its DS output. Most prefer to focus on home console releases, presumably expecting DS games to flounder, and only grudgingly get involved when we request review copies. But Eidos is pushing Soul Bubbles pretty hard, claiming it will be a "phenomenon". The bits we've played are a good start, and the promise of more interesting scenarios - traps, water and gas bubbles, surface variations and other environments - gives us hope that it will build on it successfully.
Soul Bubbles is due out on DS in June.