Reviewing Pistol Whip recently, I started thinking about PlayStation VR rhythm games and why specifically I seem to like them so much. And after putting some thought into it, I think I finally figured it out. Music is a very physical thing. No matter who you are or what kind of music you hear, some part of you is going to innately want to start moving along with that music. Moving along with music is an addictive, largely subconscious action, but the games that are able to tap into those urges and gamify so natural a reaction strike gold.
Four specific games come to mind that have so expertly honed in on what makes the physical nature of music so fulfilling. And perhaps more interestingly, all four interpret this is in different ways.
First up is the game that convinced me I needed PSVR. A couple of months before the headset was to be released to the public, I had the chance to demo Thumper not once, but twice during a weekend at PAX East. The idea of "you have to experience VR for yourself, not just be told about it" became immediately clear to me during this play session. I had never experienced a game in quite the same way before. Thumper's curious interpretation of rhythm gameplay paired with its alluring minimal aesthetic hooked me immediately. The visceral, grimy audio assault that the game presents to you is synergized with the gameplay itself. Your cosmic space beetle hooks around turns at breakneck speed, with audio cues and the motion both giving off a rather violent impression.
The note track twisting and turning violently as my head remains relatively still offer a take on musical gameplay that I can’t say I had experienced prior to Drool’s debut title. And the two-man team was very much aware of that angle, dubbing the experience a "rhythm violence game". The immense scale of the cavernous environments you race through also helped the game feel unique aesthetically. You rest right in the middle of this unnerving void, where the only things occupying the space are your track and the aggressive sounds of the music. It’s an incredible experience that you have to try for yourself to truly understand.
Fast forward a couple of years, and we have the next big thing in rhythm games. Possibly even the biggest VR title to date? One could probably make that argument. Beat Saber takes the physicality that Thumper had honed in on, but interprets it in an entirely different way. The note track is fixed in place, coming at you in the long-standing tradition of games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero. The responsibility is now placed on you, the player to generate the physical motion. With a “lightsaber” in each hand, you hack and slash your way through notes to the beat -- oftentimes the drumbeat, but not always -- of a plethora of songs.
Interestingly, Beat Saber has a similarly abstract environment like Thumper. But rather than work with the music to present a unified vision, the music -- especially the DLC songs -- present a kind of incongruity with the environments. Whereas Thumper requires you to harmonize with the product and keep things in the back of your mind, Beat Saber requires an almost total detachment from what’s going on. The second you leave your “zen state” with the game and start actually thinking about hitting the notes is the second you fail the song. Beat Saber, more than any of the games I’m going to talk about, also has a lock on the addictive “just one more” mentality. The fact that slashing through notes approximates actual movements if you were playing the drums further seals the deal.
One of the more under the radar titles for the headset last year, Audica truly impressed me. From Harmonix, no strangers to rhythm games, Audica was a game that offered yet another unique take on the genre. Most noteworthy is there is no note track to be found. You stand in the middle of a wide-open area, cavernous and devoid of much of anything. And the notes just pop into existence around you. Sure, there are discernible patterns for the way they manifest, but when the song first starts, the notes could seemingly come into being anywhere. That’s not how Audica takes advantage of rhythm though. Your trigger finger is the part that you have to condition this time. Locating the notes to shoot does follow a logical pattern, but if you’re not firing the “guns” to the rhythm of the music, you will absolutely lose your way.
Pulling triggers over and over isn’t exactly physical though. Certainly not in the same way, which is why the game has a melee component where you have to physically strike select notes to a beat, alongside shooting at the others, which serves two purposes. First, it integrates you into the music in a more intimate fashion, and second, it serves almost like an anchor to help you rediscover the beat if you have lost it. Removing that exertion from the game would still leave a quality experience, but it would be quite a bit harder to truly feel the music, in a way the devs would probably hope for.
The newest title to join the elite group of rhythm titles, Pistol Whip takes yet another unique approach. The game takes an entirely different genre -- rail shooters -- and implements that into its rhythmic gameplay. Functioning as a light gun game, the physicality starts with the title and permeates the entire experience. Melee kills are an important part of the experience, both mechanically and musically. You recharge your shields via melee, and these kills are designed to take place to the beat as well. Perhaps more than any other title on the list, every facet of the experience conditions the mind to react to the rhythm of the song that’s playing. The environments literally pulsate to the beat of the music, you shoot and kill enemies to that same rhythm, and even reload to a beat. Granted this is the easiest of the bunch to ignore the music of, but the whole experience is created with that rhythm in mind.
As you see, the physicality manifests in different ways for each title. With the exception of Thumper, the games are heavily reliant on you moving to make the experience work. Thumper is the only one that works with a regular Dualshock 4, the rest requiring a PlayStation Move controller. Thumper conveys its motion in a much different way, but this necessity for motion appears in all four of them and it’s the better for it. Each of these games is made better by the fact you are inserted into the environment in a more meaningful way than if you were just controlling them while looking at your television. Rhythm games are already a grand old time, but adding the VR component truly unlocks their full potential. This is how rhythm games were meant to be played all along.
And honestly, there are even more rhythm games -- and more PSVR experience in general -- that are incredible, but these few that I mentioned have resonated with me in a way that stands out a little further. Rez Infinite is an exceptional game, but it hasn't stuck with me in quite the same way. And there are plenty of traditional VR titles that I love, but they don't draw me in time and time again in the same way as these rhythm titles.
Do you agree with Graham's assessment? Have rhythm games found their home in VR? Bop to the beat in the comments below.