Virtual reality is a new addition to Sony's gaming repertoire, and with it has arrived a glut of new experiences and games. In fact, PlayStation VR has secured an impressively robust launch lineup with upwards of 20 titles on day one. Sure, not all of them can be winners – but luckily, Thumper is.
A rhythm game described by the two-man team at Drool – both ex-Harmonix employees – as "rhythm violence", Thumper earns that description in spades. It's an on-rails rhythm title in the vein of Amplitude, where you assume the role of a cosmic, chrome beetle, racing through an incredible hybrid of TRON and a Lynchian fever-dream.
The game uses a combination of the X button and the left analogue stick for its controls. This makes the actual act of playing the title surprisingly simple. However, simple and easy are by no means the same thing in this case. After the first three levels, the remaining six – there are nine levels in all – become nothing short of mental. The speed and ferocity with which you will find yourself mashing the X button begins to make the violent aspect of the game very evident; everything begins to happen at such an incredible speed and level of intensity that it will begin to feel borderline impossible to keep up. But once you find yourself working to the rhythm, the speed at which the game flies no longer becomes a problem; moves, and button presses become instinctive. This ends up being enough to get through the game successfully, but getting a high score and nailing every "note" is another challenge.
Now, motion sickness is a very real concern for many people when it comes to VR, and it's actually a pretty widespread problem. Which is why it's even more impressive that given Thumper's speed and intensity, motion sickness is a non-factor. We didn't so much as encounter a twinge of discomfort with this game through our six or so hours with the levels. This is likely due in large part to the way that the camera moves, which also happens to be the biggest difference between the VR and non-VR versions of the game; you don't actually need Sony's headset to play this game, but we can't recommend that version of the game enough.
In the non-VR version, the camera more aggressively whips around corners, and is all-around much more lively. The VR version keeps the camera motion more in check and more closely follows the track. Not only does this help with motion sickness, but it actually makes the game easier to play. Turns and patterns become easier to read in advance, allowing for a higher level of accuracy.
This attention to camera motion becomes even more important in the later levels, as each successive stage becomes faster than the last. It's for the better, though, as, particularly with the last two levels, there is an argument to be made for Thumper providing some of, if not the best rhythm gameplay ever made. The final boss of the entire experience is particularly mental – and we loved every second of it.
Each level actually has a couple of bosses. There are incremental mini-bosses that in the early levels are a culmination of the new mechanics introduced, as well as a final boss. Dubbed Crakhead by the devs, he gets more imposing and elaborately terrifying at the conclusion of each level, culminating in a three-stage final battle that goes so far as to incorporate time-dilation.
We wouldn't advise playing the game straight through in one sitting, however. Not only should your eyes be given a rest from the headset from time to time – especially for those new to the tech – but with Thumper it is a very realistic possibility that your thumb will begin getting sore. The frequency and rapidity with which the X button will need to be pressed makes this a genuine concern.
Even if you opt to pass on the VR version of the game, we highly recommend some really good headphones as well. It's a must for the VR version, and it radically improves the soundscape of the title. There are some things buried in the audio that you'll miss without good cans, and they definitely heighten the experience even further, as the incredible soundtrack is a pretty important component of the game.
Just about everything in the game is presented and plays flawlessly, with one notable exception: switching lanes. After the first couple levels, you'll be tasked with rapidly and precisely moving side-to-side to hit notes and manoeuvre, which is mapped to the left thumb stick. Anything other than a pristine controller gave us some issues in this regard, as controllers that get a fair amount of use tend to have stick drift, making precision a tad harder. It's actually rather unfortunate, as it's really the only problem the game has, and it's not even really a design flaw, but rather contingent on controller durability.
Thumper makes an incredible case for the future of virtual reality. With an incredible level of quality paired with a reasonable price of admission, this should absolutely be one of the first titles that anyone interested in making the most out of their new PlayStation VR headset buys. With blistering speed and intensity to go along with some easy to learn, difficult to master gameplay mechanics, the future of rhythm games – and, by extension, virtual reality – is bright.