A blind protagonist makes for a distinctive aesthetic in Pulse, but those looking for a coherent story or compelling gameplay will find neither here.
Blindness may seem like an incongruous choice of themes for the largely visual medium of videogaming, but more and more experimental games have been exploring the concept of sight impairment in new and unique ways of late, from the sound-only BlindSide to the beautifully illustrated Beyond Eyes. The latest to step boldly into the fray is Pulse, which gets its name from the kind of echolocation used by bats and dolphins. You’d think that might set the table for the kind of gameplay to expect, particularly when the game’s own early promotional materials emphasized sonar as a major component. It turns out to be a largely non-interactive element, however, leaving you mainly to navigate the world’s twisty, surreal environments in the midst of a psychedelic lightshow punctuating the dark.
Originally a group student project before being successfully Kickstarted as a full commercial product, Pulse in many ways is similar to Beyond Eyes, in that you rely on your other senses to fill in a functional picture of the landscape around you. But rather than a carbon copy of its predecessor, Pulse is more like the carbon paper itself. Where Beyond Eyes is grounded in familiar reality, Pulse is entirely steeped in unreality to the point of narrative incomprehensibility. And while Beyond Eyes is bathed in soothing white, Pulse plunges you deep into suffocating blackness between moments of illuminating vibrations.
The story of Pulse can be summed up succinctly: I have no idea. Okay, it’s not quite that dire, but not far off. You play as a girl named Eva, who lost her sight at an early age but has enough memory of the world to envision it in her mind’s eye by the sounds and reverberations it creates. You find yourself arriving at a kind of remote wilderness, an unwelcome visitor who must save your people from someone or something menacing, even as the ground itself begins to rumble around you. Who and where your people are, what exactly endangers them, and what you need to do to save them is never made clear – even when you’re actually doing it – but only you can be the saviour, because your blindness-honed abilities give you alone the capacity to overcome the challenges of a world enveloped by darkness.
At various points along the way, a deformed “talking” crow pops up to spew cryptic clues that only serve to further muddy the waters. This crow reminded me of an ancient indigenous legend in which spirit and land are one, but no attempt is made to make it at all cohesive, or even understandable. I don’t mind a little fragmented metaphysical mystery being gradually and creatively unveiled, but this comes off less as poetic storytelling and more like deliberate obtuseness to keep you… uhh, well, in the dark. At some point in any tale, something has to make sense to fully engage the audience, but in Pulse nothing ever does. Even at the end I didn’t really know what had happened, or why.
Fortunately, the world of Pulse is interesting enough to keep you motivated to press on. You’ll start out on the shores of this strange land, having docked your boat to pursue the rest of your journey on foot. Throughout the game you’ll traverse a variety of environments, each area generally having its own distinct colour palette: the forest is initially a mix of greens and purples, abandoned ruins are bathed in oranges and reds, while both the crystalline caves and snowy tundra are comprised of rich blues and white. You’ll never get a complete picture of the terrain around you, but the various ambient noises, including wind blowing, water lapping, and even your own footfall provide ever-changing snapshots at regular intervals. On a few occasions you’ll encounter dangerous creatures best avoided, and the screen will turn blood red whenever one catches you in its sight, giving you enough time to stealthily sneak away. This makes no logical sense, of course, but it’s a clever use of additional colour. Stand still for long, wherever you are, and the whole world will be consumed by inky darkness.
The images you “see” are not fully formed, inhabiting more of a middle ground between translucent wire-frame reconstructions and fully fleshed-out objects, though the nearer the object to you, the more detailed it is and the greater its opacity. Only up close will you be able to make out particulars like flowers, bulrushes, tribal masks and totems, as well as more ominous sights like menacing eyes peering at you or the skeletons of those who have come before you. Sometimes your mental images can be misleading though, because you’ll frequently envision far-off scenery only to find that your way is blocked by obstacles you didn’t know existed. I’m not convinced this phenomenon was ever adequately justified, existing mainly to turn the landscape into an unforeseen maze, but at least it can be rationalized by organic sounds interacting differently with various parts of the environment, depending on proximity.
There is no discernible goal in Pulse, other than to keep moving forward and find out what happens. The crow gives off a hazy aura that can sometimes be detected from afar, giving you a point of reference to aim for at times, but in general you’re left roaming onwards and occasionally upwards with no clear sense of direction or purpose. As someone who despises aimless wandering in games, I was bracing myself for the worst in striking out blindly (both literally and figuratively) into the great unknown, but to the developer’s credit, the maps are self-contained and intuitive enough that I rarely found myself turned around or feeling lost.
As you progress you’ll eventually encounter a race of adorable, wide-eyed little creatures. Apparently they’re “spirits of the forest” called Mokos, whose “sole desire is to help you”, though the game itself never offers any such context. They’re also meant to offer “superfluous amounts of cuteness”, and that much is instantly obvious to anyone. Whether alone or in small groups, the Mokos will begin following you once you’ve gotten close enough to alert them of your presence. You can pick up and hold one at a time, making it an ever-present on-screen companion, but the ones trailing behind are pretty slow and have even worse pathfinding sense than you despite the size of their eyes, so it’s not really worth trying to build up a lemming-like following.
You’ll need the Mokos for the few challenges that might constitute a “puzzle” in Pulse, though employing one to power a hamster wheel amounts to little more than using a different kind of key to open the only door forward. You can either place or throw a Moko, and the prototype trailers showed them being flung ahead to illuminate particularly dark areas, their crashing and banging (surely the least dignified use of a forest spirit I know) creating enough vibration to brighten the path. As it turns out, however, there’s enough ambient activity everywhere you go that it really isn’t necessary to use your faithful pals as sound generators.
I thought for sure they’d come in handy the rare times I encountered a towering War of the Worlds-style walker or prowling wolf-type predators – not as bait, just a sonic distraction! – but no, not even then, as the wolves stay transfixed on your position no matter how many helpful Mokos you chuck around. These enemy encounters represented the least enjoyable part of the game for me, as simply getting close(-ish) to one means game over and restarting at the nearest fire pit checkpoint. I tried the patient stealthy approach at first, but finally abandoned it for an anti-strategic run like hell solution. Not fun at all, but only one particular sequence gave me any real difficulty.
Being eaten isn’t the only way to die in Pulse, as there are several light platforming sequences to contend with as well. A misplaced jump from one pillar or path to another doesn’t always mean certain doom, but it does when an earthquake is wreaking havoc all around you, or giant mechanical gears threaten to squash you if your timing isn’t just so. There’s nothing overly challenging, but some tasks are timed and may take an extra try or two before succeeding. One scenario I particularly enjoyed was crossing a frozen lake, whose fragile ice began cracking under my weight and threatened to suck me under unless I found a solid path, though I admit that I survived more by luck than skill.
Another puzzle in Pulse is simply figuring out what you can do and how things work, as you are given no instructions at all. Not that there’s a lot to learn, with the standard WASD/mouse combo (or analog stick/buttons on gamepad) taking care of the bulk of the mechanics through this 3D world. But it would have been nice to know I could run before reaching a jump that required it, having never needed to previously. It sounds obvious after the fact, but as you can imagine, running blind through labyrinthine forests isn’t the preferred course of action for even the most intrepid explorer. Nor are you told what you can do with the Mokos, though a little experimenting will answer that question easily enough.
Scattered throughout the game are a series of 50 light orbs, but not only aren’t they mandatory to find, there’s no real value in collecting them at all. I was hoping that each orb would fill in some desperately-needed backstory details, but it appears they’re simply random collectibles. Then again, maybe that’s for the best. Burying your story in a game of hide-and-seek in a maze with a blind person could be considered a bit sadistic. Nevertheless, a little more reward would have made the exercise more fulfilling. I ended up with 21 at the end of my game despite taking my time. Even at a fairly leisurely pace, it took me less than two hours to complete Pulse, so it is certainly not a lengthy experience. The orbs alone offer any sort of replay value, which wasn’t nearly enough incentive for me, though in a nice touch, the orbs that have already been located remain found upon starting a new game.
In the end, I find myself admiring Pulse more than I was actually entertained by it, given both its incomprehensible story and lack of any substantial gameplay. While it can’t be described as a “beautiful” game, perhaps, I appreciate the stylish visual presentation and the clever way in which it’s implemented through vibration, although not nearly enough of it is dependent on player-specific actions – what could have been a very fundamental puzzling element feels entirely stripped out. The variety of surreal landscapes, appropriately atmospheric tonal music playing sparsely throughout, and of course the irresistible charm of the Mokos make me not at all sorry I played the game. I just wish I had a better sense of what was going on at the time, and had a little more to do with figuring it all out. As it is, the experience feels like a lot of sound and fury signifying not nearly much as there could have been.