Pulse: Seeing with sound
It’s said that blind people develop their other senses more to compensate for not being able to see. The protagonist of Pulse – a young girl named Eva – seems to have adjusted particularly well to her own blindness, developing a bat-like sonar sense, letting her image the world through sound. Her parents are deeply protective of her and refuse to let her leave her home. Now, she must venture through a mystical dreamworld to find out why no-one in her village is ever allowed to leave.
The story of Pulse is a classic tale of innocence versus experience. When you’re plonked down on a misty dock – your port of transition between dreams and reality – you’ll immediately encounter a raven who tells you about the path of danger and self-discovery that lies ahead. Immediately you’re beckoned into a weird world where glowing purple eyes gaze at you from the darkness then disappear into nothingness. It’s surely no coincidence that Eva wears a red robe like little red riding hood, as she’s always delving forward towards knowledge that promises to liberate or consume her.
The aural and visual are seldom mixed so perfectly as they are in Pulse. Whenever you hear a distant roar and the earth shakes, your surroundings shimmer and become very clear. Then when silence returns, everything is dark, with only bare outlines of the ancient temples, giant vines and still mountains around. A genuinely eerie atmosphere is created between the sonorous music, ambient rumblings of a fluctuating dreamscape and the cryptic exposition you’re drip-fed through the esoteric musings of the characters you meet. I was really impressed how Pulse communicated the feelings of vulnerability blindness might give, as you only have a vague sense of the world around you. On the other hand, Eva’s enhanced hearing also works in your favour, allowing you to effectively see through walls at the opportunities and dangers beyond. Though sight isn’t helping Eva, it’s not limiting her either.
Your constant companions during Pulse are the mokos: the impossibly cute, doe-eyed, fluffy, ball-shaped creatures that skitter around the world. You can throw them into hamster wheels to make massive cogs turn, opening up the path ahead. And yes, goshdarnit, that means some first person platforming where you’ll have to time your jumps to leap through the gaps in the rotating gears. There’s nothing remarkable about these sections – just good, old fashioned, blue collar, salt of the earth running and jumping on things. It’s just as straightforward as other parts of the game, such as the stealth sections where freakishly long limbed spider-like beings patrol the landscape, flooding the screen with angry red sound, and killing you when you get too close.
The idea of the visuals being revealed by sound is truly unique, but it’s not integrated into the gameplay in a really meaningful way. You can throw mokos, and when they bounce on the ground, they emit a delighted squeal that reveals the terrain around them. I thought this sound-flare idea would be integral in some of the stealth sections – perhaps using the mokos to distract monsters or reveal hidden passages – but stealth is really just a simple matter of waiting for baddies to trundle past.
There was one puzzle where I was meant to follow a Moko over a frozen lake, but the adorable little thing seemingly glitched into the scenery, forcing me to go the rest of the way on my own. Annoyingly, I found that each time I lingered too long on a sheet of crumbling ice and drowned, I was respawned immediately onto another space of cracked ice, instantly dying again. These technical hitches damaged my immersion in Pulse’s otherwise captivating world.
The elephant in the room regarding Pulse is its short length, and this is really what sabotages pretty much every other aspect of the game. There’s an achievement for finishing the main story in under 30 minutes, and to my surprise, I managed to get this achievement on my first go around. Bear in mind I did get stuck a few times, and I grabbed about half of the in-game collectibles during my playthrough. If I’d made the effort to nab every single collectible, it might have padded out the playtime an hour or so more, but it didn’t really seem worth it. Picking up the glowing orbs doesn’t reveal anything about Eva’s life or incentivize you collecting them in any way other than getting the obligatory achievement for finding them all.
Pulse’s lacking length hurts the narrative as well. I felt like I’d only just begun my descent into the dreamworld’s heart of darkness when the story abruptly ended. Intriguing plot threads, such as the fate of Eva’s brother, are mentioned then just left dangling. Eva is constantly threatened by the sacrifices of exploring beyond the boundaries set for her and embracing the unknown. However, Eva never really has to face up to any sacrifices, and is never forced to make any hard choices. It’s usually good when a game leaves me wanting more, but Pulse is like one of those fleeting lucid dreams where you wake up just as you’re flying through the air (or making out with Major Kira from Deep Space Nine).
Evaluating a game based on “content” makes me sound like some sort of soulless marketing executive and I hate it, but the brutal fact is that there’s not enough content in Pulse to justify the asking price. If you’re the sort who enjoys your games magical and mystical, you’ll probably get a kick out of Pulse, but even if you are, it’s probably better to wait till it’s on sale. Now that I’ve just judged a beautiful indie game as an inequitable financial transaction, I’m required to watch a Lars Von Trier movie marathon to cleanse my liberal arts educated soul. See (or sense) you in the next review!
Final Verdict: 3 / 5
Available on: PC; Publisher: Pixel Pi Games; Developer: Pixel Pi Games; Players: 1; Released: 20th October, 2015 ;
Full Disclosure: A copy of this game was provided by the publisher.