Bubble Bay, a new bubble-popping game from Powerhouse Games, is superficially similar to many other games on the App Store, but is actually a different sort of animal altogether–and we’re not just talking about the octopus protagonist. While there is enough gameplay here to occupy you, the game’s languid pace and ambient soundtrack makes it seem like it was also designed to lull you into a relaxed, happy state. The combination works well.
In Bubble Bay, you control a wide-eyed octopus afloat in a sea of colored bubbles. Your job is to pick up bubbles as they bob slowly towards the surface and tote them over to matching bubbles to make a pair, which then vanishes with a pop. Popping pairs fills up a meter on the right side of the screen; when it’s totally full, you move on to the next level. The tricky part is that you can only carry up to four bubbles at a time, and once you pick a bubble up, you can only get rid of it by matching it. Thus, you have to be careful not to grab up a bunch of unmatchable bubbles, or you’ll get stuck and squashed against the surface. Successful octopi carefully plan their route through the froth, moving from match to match and insuring that they always have a free slot or two to get themselves out of a bind.
In addition to the regular colored bubbles, there are also special bubbles akin to the power-up blocks in many other Match-3 and bubble-popper games. The difference here is that these contain various kinds of fish, which, when matched, move around the board in different patterns zapping bubbles for you. The fish make for a neat visual touch, and their ability to get rid of a lot of bubbles in a hurry is a useful addition to the gameplay.
Our biggest problem with Bubble Bay is that there are a ton of different colors for the bubbles, and many of them are only a shade or two off from one another. If you’re not paying close attention, you may fill your final slot with a sky blue bubble, thinking you can match it with that other bubble over there…only to realize that it’s really more of a baby blue. Then you get spend the next several moments cursing your poor color sight as your hapless octopus is carried towards its death on the surface, requiring you to start over from the beginning of the reef (there are six reefs in the game, each containing a set of levels). There’s no colorblind mode, either, which wrecks the game completely for a minority of players.
Aside from the color subtlety issues, we like Bubble Bay’s graphics well enough, although they’re more functional than flashy. The game throws out some nice particle effects when you pop bubbles, and the different types of aquatic wildlife add some visual zest, but the art direction still seems a little flat to our eye. We’re reserving our praise for the game’s music and underwater sound effects, which are fantastic. The looping background track is so long and pacifying that it never gets boring; it sounds like it might have been written by Brian Eno. You can’t listen to your own music, though, meaning the real Brian Eno won’t be coming underwater with you.
Overall, Bubble Bay is an enjoyably chilled-out casual game with a unique meditative quality. We think it’s worth $4.99.