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May 17, 2011

Review: Pulse

Posted by on May 17, 2011

As you know, we recently talked to the good fellows from Cipher Prime. For a group that until recently had released only two games, they have a pretty incredible track record (if you haven’t played Auditorium and Fractal, go do so now because you’re missing out).

No really, go play them, then come back and read this.

Now that we’re all on the same page, you understand why I got so excited to hear that Cipher Prime was creating a new game exclusively for the iPad and its magic multitouch screen. That game, Pulse, came out on May 5th. Conveniently I just got an iPad (I promise it had nothing to do with the release of Pulse), so I’ve had the chance to experience it. And let me tell you, it’s deceptively simple, fun, and engaging.

The Basics

At heart, Pulse is inspired by the Dance Dance Revolution genre. There’s music and you’re supposed to hit something when stuff appears on the screen. It’s by no means a novel concept – I think Tap Tap Revenge was the first game of this type on the iPhone/iPad – but Pulse is simpler. Pulses come from the center of the screen, in time with the music, and your job is to hit notes that appear as each pulse crosses them.

See that little dot... That's a note.

Think circular Guitar Hero, with moving frets instead of notes. Oh, and the notes move too. Oh, and there can be lots more of them at the same time. It gets pretty crazy. When you hit a note correctly, it makes a nice sound and explodes in waves of butterflies, leaves, or other soothing objects (or Kanye-style shutter shades). When you don’t, the music isn’t quite as good.

On the later levels notes come in groups, in different areas of the screen and moving quite rapidly. This is where the multitouch comes into play: when you’re tapping away with both hands and listening to the music, you really feel like you’re playing an instrument.

The Visuals

If you played Auditorium (which if you haven’t and got this far in the review, you’re doing it wrong – it’s a free web game), then you’ll know how someone can make a beautiful game with just a couple of shapes and a couple of colors. Pulse elevates that technique to a new level. Until you hit a note it’s stark: grey concentric lines on a black background and a periodic colored pulse. But when you do, it delivers an explosion of color and shapes. It’s like candy for the part of your brain that likes positive feedback. Each song has a different color palette and set of exploding shapes.

The Music

Clearly the guys at Cipher Prime have a good handle on creating an awesome experience, and since we experience partly through our ears, you can’t exactly ignore sound. Each of their games uses music to really reinforce the gameplay (don’t think that’s true about Fractal? Check out what they said about it). Of course it’s the same story with Pulse, where the music is front and center. And let me tell you – the music is awesome. Pulse currently contains 8 songs (they’ve said they’ll be adding more each month, free of charge), and each of them is completely different. They’re original but they riff off some well known themes, and are generally awesome.  I recommend playing this game with headphones on, as you’ll get a much better experience than with the built-in iPad speakers. Each song is harder than the next, and it ramps in difficulty pretty steeply. Since I’m not very good, I wish the difficulty curve was easier and that they’d saved some of the harder songs for later, but it’s driven me to try to get perfect scores.

The Bottom Line

Pulse is a deceptively simple but fun game. And I mean it’s deceptive on the fun part. I have found myself goofily grinning while playing Pulse more times than I can count. I’ve used it to cheer up people who were feeling a little overwhelmed… Seriously. How many games are there that can do that?

I do wish it had more levels, and that I was able to play more than five of them effectively (I’m not sure if that says more about me, or Pulse). I also wish that there was some way that I could play it without putting my hands in front of the screen because that makes it a little hard to play sometimes, but that’s more of a knock on the iPad than on Pulse. Other than those minor issues, this is a game you should get your hands on as soon as possible.