Of the early PSVR releases, it’s been surprising just how well some of them are able to bring you into a world, and then keep you there. Whether it’s driving a space tank in Battlezone, piloting a spacefighter in EVE: Valkyrie or wandering around Croft Mansion in Rise of the Tomb Raider, there can be a singularity of vision that I’m not sure any of us were expecting. Thumper then, is quite simply the most intense, claustrophobic experience amongst them, and one in which the real world will simply fade away.
Thumper is fundamentally a rhythm action game. Developers Drool – a duo of Harmonix alumni – describe it as rhythm horror, and that’s a description that’s much closer to the experience, the aesthetic, and the challenge that a session playing it brings. There’s a singular vision to it, and a purity to the gameplay that you don’t often see in modern console games.
You control a metallic scarab beetle, hurtling down a single track, while you use the analogue stick and the cross button to engage with or avoid obstacles and power-ups that tie into the pulsating music. As rhythm action games go, it seems like a sparse set up, but it’s one that expands with each level, and such is the speed with which hazards are thrown at you it has to become your total focus or you’ll spectacularly fail.
Glowing elements on the track are your primary concern, and need a press of the cross button, and that’s the key to everything else. Corner sections need turning into, barriers need breaking through, and your beetle can take flight as well, either to avoid hazards or to break through them. Most interactions require a press of cross at the same time, and there’s little room for error.
You can miss the glowing elements, but making contact with a hazard will strip your beetle of his metallic armour and the next error will see you fail that section of a level, returning you to its start. Each level is made up of multiple sections, and thankfully at the close of each you can get your armour back, but the two hit limit to each makes every turn a knife edge, particularly when the special effects that accompany an error make it very likely that you’ll immediately make another. Perfection is key here, and in trying to attain it you’ll be in Thumper’s thrall. It’s might be hard to say whether you’re enjoying it, but it’s utterly unmissable.
Musically there are elements that could be lifted from various sci-fi soundtracks, with hints of the dark tones of Vangelis’ Blade Runner opus and M83’s work on the Tom Cruise-fronted Oblivion crossed with some of Nine Inch Nails’ more recent output. Composed by Brian Gibson, one of the game’s two developers, his sinister and rhythmic work ties in perfectly to the game’s visuals and relentless action. Playing with headphones is practically essential if you want to wring every ounce of the game’s overwhelming atmosphere out of it.
The twisted journey that Thumper takes you on is one that is best experienced in virtual reality, as its all-encompassing vision of a hellish dimension sees inky tendrils extend from the dark, which give way to geometric shapes that become tunnels, with bursts of cerulean flashing by before you’re presented by an angry demonic visage that you attack with increasingly more complicated movements on your controller. In VR, you’re within that hellscape, and it has an intensity that doesn’t quite carry over in the same way when you play it on a television or screen.
It’ll probably be that intensity that makes or breaks the game for many people. The atmosphere can be genuinely oppressive, the difficulty level aggravatingly high, with some sections simply needing you to memorise every single hazard in order to progress. Even then you can’t guarantee success. Your view in VR is also dictated by your seating or standing position, and if you’re not quite in the right spot you won’t have the optimal view down the track.
However, no matter how punishing it might be on every single front, I found myself returning to earlier levels in order to improve my run, and just as crucially, thinking about playing it even when I wasn’t. Every section is graded, with a final mark for the entire level based on these, and extra points are gained for hitting obstacles with perfect timing, enabling you to fight for position on both worldwide and friends leaderboards. It’s certainly worth returning.
If you’re a fan of rhythm action games, Thumper is amongst the most intense, pure, and singular experiences within the genre, and its release for the PSVR should make it utterly essential for anyone that owns Sony’s headset.
Version Tested: PS4/PSVR