There are a few things that I had missed going into Bubbles the Cat. Upon booting it up for the first time, I realized that Bubble moved on her own, without a single input from my end. This drastically changed the way I was to look at the game, and ultimately gave it more of a mobile aura (not to discredit it). This lack of control is something I’m not normally accustomed to, which provided extra difficulty in getting used to playing by its rules.
In my career thus far at KeenGamer, difficulty is no stranger to me, as a large chunk of my reviewing library consists of titles so difficult that they made me involuntarily wince, enhance my grip, hold my breath, and curse time for going so fast. Bubbles the Cat warned me beforehand that it wasn’t an easy game; its Steam page actually uses it as a selling point. I still went into it thinking I would have little trouble. So here I sit— demoralized, but satisfied—typing out a review for a game that, on its surface, seems more appealing to infants than platforming veterans. It’s full of surprises.
Bubbles the Cat is available on Steam for your regional pricing.
Like with many games that promise gameplay finesse as a center, Bubbles the Cat has a fairly bare minimum attempt at a story. Pieced together by drawn images clipped together in a storybook fashion, Bubbles is roaming around one day, as cats are prone to doing. She ends up finding a hole within a fence arounfd the yard, and falling in, she’s swept by a current of water(?) into what is implied by the level design as another dimension. (If not, it’s just an exaggerated interpretation of various real-life settings.) In an unknown world, Bubbles has little choice but to explore and find her way home.
In cases such as this, I find the lack of a narrative not something worth ragging on. In a game that focuses on platforming capabilities and a cat as the main character, I can’t really see how anyone can do more than what’s done here, unless they wanted to go the absurdist route. Its attempt, while minimal, is enough to hold one over on the motivation to continue Bubbles’s trek, especially when completing each world will reward the player with an additional drawn image that summarizes the course of the journey at that point. Otherwise, there isn’t much here that will satisfy a gamer’s fancy for narratives.
Allow me to describe what to expect with the gameplay of Bubbles the Cat with a short analogy. For anyone familiar enough with the Donkey Kong Country series to know the method of strategy required to take down King K. Rool at the end of each game, Bubbles the Cat is somewhat similar, except the process is more varied and split into more than one-hundred levels. If this sounds confusing, I’ll break it down: Each level in Bubbles the Cat, assuming one goes for collecting as many stars as possible (more on that in a moment), is like a maze, with the trajectory dedicated to memorizing one’s capabilities for each stage in order to get through as efficiently as possible. One will eventually be tasked with thinking on their toes and enduring a little trial and error to better progress through the challenges ahead. While in Donkey Kong Country this process is done through a long boss battle, Bubbles the Cat varies itself enough to keep the situational themes fresh for each level.
Bubbles the Cat, at its core, isn’t actually that difficult. If one were to ignore all else and simply shoot for the checkered flag at the end of each stage, they’d likely be done within a couple hours time. What makes the game difficult is not one, but two separate factors which are required to collect each stage’s maximum output of stuff: collecting a set number of fish-shaped treats and completing the stage under a time limit. Doing so will reward the player with three platinum stars, with each requirement (completing the stage, collecting treats, and under the time limit) rewarding the player with one gold star (they only turn platinum if you do it all in one run). These stars go into unlocking various things for the player to peruse or play, including artwork, hats for Bubbles to wear, and secret “X” levels which are substantially harder than normal levels.
Perhaps I am simply too competitive, but I feel going for every possible objective per stage is an easy thing to get caught up in, even in the face of horrible odds. The game’s stage list is split up into five worlds (excluding X stages), with each world containing twenty levels. For each world, the aesthetic design changes and the power-ups Bubbles can collect expands accordingly. In the long run, most of the worlds feel all the same, sans the things one encounters there and the music that accompanies each world. The goal of the game doesn’t change no matter where one is (again, excluding X stages), which can lead to some burnout, especially if one struggles through a certain world. While I have little issue with this, I feel there’s a loss in potential for further differentiating each world from a goal perspective, such as eliminating [blank] number of ghosts in World 2 in such amount of time while collecting treats.
What gives Bubbles the Cat a needed boost of variety is in the amount of power-ups one can collect throughout their adventure. The ability to explode and launch really high, summon walls for one to cling onto in mid-air, or transform into a gliding bubble are only some of the things one can do as this completely normal cat. Along with the normal ability to jump up to seven times in one sitting (which refills upon landing), Bubbles is a high-flying mammal with abilities that wonderfully craft the game’s level of entertainment. At the touch of a single button (thanks to Bubbles’s continuous movement), the game offers such a controlled and refreshing take on the platformer genre. Where it thrives is in the experimentation of its whole, constantly testing what works within the field and how players can interpret the unknown in real time.
A hot-topic discussion of video games currently resides in the accessibility of video games in the wake of From Software’s Sekiro. Bubbles the Cat seems to address this by implementing the ability to erase some of the challenge from its game (called boosts), including eliminating the limit of mid-air jumps one can do. Without provoking too much of the alienating topic, I feel game developers can do whatever they please with their game; any “artistic vision” is up to any individual to decipher. What Bubbles the Cat does is simply provide the option to make the game less frustrating, and while I prefer the challenge, if one wants to play at a more casual pace, more power to them.
Circling back to the process of maze-like memorization, this is where I feel Bubbles the Cat occasionally takes the process too far. 3-6, 3-8, and 3-20. These stages specifically are among the hardest levels to fully complete I’ve ever had the pleasure/displeasure of conquering. The issue I have with them is that they’re long, far too long in that it stretches the patience and the desire to continue away from players when 90% of the course is adequately challenging and the last 10% is enough to give me the strength to make grip imprints in my controller. Restarting over and over is more justifiable in the face of a game’s final boss, but when it comes from a random level in the middle of a single world, it feels like an unnecessary difficulty spike. Constantly restarting, doing the same actions over and over and over, just to fail at the same part repeatedly is such an aggravating, defeating feeling—a feeling exacerbated by how long it all is. Some of these stages should probably be served within the X World.
Extremely random difficulty spikes aside, much of it feels tremendously fair in its ruleset. Running at a consistent 60 FPS, power-ups working as intended without issue, and minimal instances where I swore I avoided those ever-annoying spike pits, I’m tremendously appreciative of the polish that has gone into this game. Team Cats & Bears is one that I can trust with future releases based on this one game alone; the performance is that good. The game is fairly simple compared to other games, granted, but that shouldn’t excuse the level of effort shown by these developers to provide a straightforward challenge in as cute a fashion as possible. It never felt out of my control, though I’d argue the developers occasionally went out of control with their creativity (or maybe even stage placement).
Graphics & Audio
Admittedly, where the game shines in gameplay mechanics, it somewhat falters in the graphical compartment. In what may be a personal preference, Bubbles the Cat has a look that just barely manages to present it as something of professional quality. The simple pixel graphics pale in comparison to many other games with a similar artstyle, such as The Messenger or Axiom Verge. Some fun comes through the customization options of Bubbles, including a flurry of random colors unbecoming of cats such as bright red or blue. Level design is wonderful, however, easily distinguishing what is and isn’t something that one can hop onto or cling onto. New power-ups and unknown platforms give off a subtle hint through their aesthetic make-up even before the player comes into contact with them, easily alerting the player of what to expect. It isn’t the prettiest platformer, even for a pixel junkie such as myself. At the very least, Bubbles looks cute with a rainbow trail.
Also like many games within its field as an indie title, there isn’t too much in terms of soundtrack variation. One hears a single theme for each world, the main menu, and some accompanying sounds for the narrative pictures. For what is there, it’s an acceptable blend of bouncy and dramatic, but is occasionally implemented a little too forcefully. I noticed within World 3 that the accompanying theme is a little too loud, causing some fuzziness to come through while listening. Little slip-ups here and there provide a break from immersion that somewhat hampers the experience, while some may find it repetitive to hear the same tune for extended periods of time. I do like the theme for the main menu, and I’m partial to World 1’s theme. It’s got an almost humorous beat that becomes infectious up until the part where the game kicks your face in.