I rarely take into account the price of games when reviewing them. The majority of video games are either incredibly over or under priced these days and the content of the experience is what essentially matters most. Pulstario was released for 99p on both Steam and Switch so it’s hard to not take that into account as it was clearly priced for what it is; a small retro style indie game for a quick bit of fun. For the most part it achieves this but not without some caveats and strings. It’s time to strap yourself in to try for another speedrun.
Pulstario is a fast paced action game where you navigate a tiny ship, using the ability to slow time to a crawl, follow a navigation pointer and fight against incredibly strong gravity to collect white squares dotted around each level. It’s hard to go into the details of the story or plot because there isn’t one (there’s a mention of collecting lost souls in the advert for the game but that’s it) It’s also hard to describe Pulstario without comparing it to other classic games, it can feel at times like the old classic lunar lander but a lot faster and more punishing. Pulstario can be like Pac Man but freeform, planning out your route quickly and it can be like Defender, punishingly brutal for even the slightest mistake. Once you get to grips with the speedrun nature at heart it becomes a lot more enjoyable with a real focus on pushing through and committing to actions with a fair amount of trial and error.
Unfortunately Pulstario looks like an old DOS Shareware game at first glance. In motion it’s a little jittery due to the nature of the fast movement and responsive controls. The backgrounds are multi-layered and the colours there are beautiful. It’s just a shame that the level designs are chunky and laid out haphazardly. One of the more interesting levels is shaped around a central clock face but even this level can’t follow the theme throughout. All of the text is easily readable. Strangely the screen to select your ship and navigation pointer is hidden away in the Options menu but everything is practical almost to a detriment of the overall experience.
The music in Pulsario really does elevate the experience. There’s a fantastic pulsing techno sci-fi soundtrack and use of sounds in the game blends everything together superbly. The rocket’s noise when you use the thrust is quiet enough to not interrupt and the pleasant ring for each collectable square is rewarding. The explosion on touching any surface isn’t a frustrating sound and the speed at which you jump back in reminds me of early smart phone games (in a good way) You will be dying a lot though so it’s a good thing that the music is so good and doesn’t restart after every death, simply pushing you on to succeed.
Although Pulstario is on Steam and Switch I would recommend playing it on the Switch in handheld mode the most. On PC it’s a little too twitchy for keys and using a controller is the best solution. Playing with the Switch docked stretches the screen a little too much making the quick movements a lot more visually jittery. When in handheld mode on the Switch, Pulstario has some great moments. The levels are short and messy but when you nail a quick speedrun on a challenging level it does feel fantastic. The caveat is that to get those great moments takes a lot of trial and error. Remembering where things move to regardless of when you died last. The levels doesn’t reset on death so if there are moving parts you need to take that into account each time you set off.
Pulstario’s first impressions aren’t great. It looks like a DOS shareware game of the past and when you first start playing it feels too fast and the slow power too slow. Once you get to grips with the responsive gameplay though you’ll find that you have an enjoyable little game on your hands. There are unlockable ships, different pointers, unlockable levels, in-game achievements and once you get the knack of the controls and start taking on specific levels when set to YOLO mode it’s pretty good fun. It can be frustrating as hell but once you get to grips with the slightly too fast and slightly too slow speed of the ship everything sort of clicks. A really nice little game if you can get past the first few hurdles but you need to have a high threshold for trial and error.
5/10 – The Dark Souls of 2D collectathons.
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