Ruku’s Heart Balloon is right up there with the sweetest games I’ve ever played. The developers set out to make something treacle-sweet, to the point where prolonged exposure to it may well sicken you, and they succeeded. I just wasn’t able to play it for long before desperately needing to balance it out with some hardcore exploding head action afterwards. More seriously, though, this is a wholesome, warming, fun-for-all-ages game.
The heart and soul of Heart Balloon is its story mode, in which a rabbit, Ruku, and her pal, Lish, set out to turn flowers into heart balloons, and have a lovely time together while doing so. While the writing is riddled with some of the worst localisation that we’ve seen on the Switch, it doesn’t matter too much, because you’ll get the point of it whether the words are making sense to you or not. This point, of course, is to be cute. Adorable. Fluffy. Warm. The children’s book aesthetics really sell this, and that’s supported by a piano music score that is the epitome of the nursery room aesthetic. To be clear, adults can enjoy Ruku’s Heart Balloon. It’s childish and children-friendly, but it also achieves that in the kind of artful way that players of all ages can find value in it too.
As you can probably guess, the game is then built around being something that could work equally as well as a child’s first video game experience as it could be something you play in-between sessions of Mortal Kombat and Dead or Alive (something I actually did. It really works as a palette cleanser). It’s basically a “match-3” game, except that instead of trying to line three icons (“flowers” in this game’s case) up in a row by moving them around, here you simply want to clear away as many as you can by clicking on the screen. If you click on a flower, and it has one other flower of the same colour connected to it, then both will disappear, and you’ll get a tiny few points. If, however, you click on a flower and it has an unbroken link to a dozen (or more) flours of the same colour, you’ll clear them all away and make a boatload of points.
The skill, strategy, and challenge of Ruku’s Heart Balloon, therefore, comes down to picking the right order to make flowers disappear, and maximise your points doing so. Some levels have the added challenge that you’ve got a limited number of flowers and need to clear the screen, but most levels are endless in design, with more flowers appearing as you clear them away, and there’s no actual lose state, as far as I can tell.
So, as you can probably guess, it’s not the most challenging puzzle game out there.
But not every game has to be challenging to be delightful. There are several Hatsune Miku puzzle games that are on Switch that are not challenging in the slightest, but provide a warming way to unwind after an exhausting or stressful day. Ruku’s Heart Balloon is much the same. It’s so good-natured and pleasant that, realistically speaking here, was it difficult in any way, the gameplay would have clashed harshly with everything else that the game’s doing. The developers have perfectly calibrated the experience. You’ll still do some thinking, in trying to figure out the optimal order to maximise your score. But at the same time, you’ll never be stuck, frustrated, or confused by the game.
There’s even a two-player mode, which is a delight all by itself. When you jump into it (it does take a bit to figure out the interface to get into it in the first place, so do this – enter “Free Mode” from the main menu, have the controllers set up, and then on the 1st player’s controller, press the “Y” button so the “Two Player” icon in the top right is dark. If you can’t turn it dark, you might need to set up the controllers again) you’ll see the screen split like in Tetris or Puzzle Bobble multiplayer. It looks like it’ll be a competitive mode, but it’s not. Not really, anyway. You and your partner are, instead, working together to clear a set number of flowers of each colour (the more “difficult” the mode, the more flower colours there are and the more flowers you need to clear to complete the level). There is, technically, some form of competition in there as you are scored individually based on how many big sets of flowers you can clear, and so there’s a “winner” in whoever scores the highest, but I really can’t imagine anyone actually playing this to be competitive with one another.
Rather, the people that will play this together are parents and their young children, or couples that find the aesthetics charming and just want to enjoy time together. It’s an opportunity to play a low-pressure, low-intensity game together, chat, and enjoy one another’s company. We just don’t get many of those kinds of games. Even the “casual” and “friendly” multiplayer games get subsumed into competitive scenes these days. It’s refreshing when a developer creates something that actively resists that.
With the exception of the poor localisation, Ruku’s Heart Balloon is the epitome of good-naturedness, and has actually been built with confidence and expertise around that. Whether this is the very first game you’ve ever played (I can’t imagine too many toddlers read DDNet, but hey, welcome!), a parent looking for a way to connect with your kids, someone with a non-gaming spouse or an esports professional that is looking for something that’s going to give them a break from those toxic communities, Ruku’s Heart Balloon has a little something for everyone.