Rave On a Rail
HIGH: The sense of speed in VR is amazing to behold.
LOW: Playing it for more than an hour gives me a headache.
WTF: The bug looks like it came from Roger Dean’s terrarium.
Thumper is an unsettling, self-styled “rhythm violence” game which pits a quicksilver-shelled beetle against a series of terrifying ‘80s death-metal-inspired floating heads. I know that sounds completely random, but it really is the simplest way describe what Thumper is and the tone it conveys.
Taking control of the aforementioned insect is deceivingly simple. Thumper is played with only one button and the directional pad as the poor little guy is quickly funneled down a track. Dodging obstacles involves jumping, hovering, and grinding against the sides of walls while accelerating toward a demonic boss fight around every ten levels or so. There are a few other ideas tossed in the mix later on, but these are the basics in a nutshell.
While several rhythm games put the focus on the music, Thumper places it squarely on gameplay. It starts slowly, letting the player get accustomed to what it expects before rapidly increasing the tempo. The difficulty curve then jumps exponentially, becoming almost too much to handle at first.
While the checkpoints are merciful, I did have one hell of an adjustment period filled with trial-and-error memorization before everything started to click. It never got easy, but I was at least able to progress. By the end, while I was still dying repeatedly, I was able to see what I needed to do in order to get around it. Thumper moves fast and seems impossible to comprehend to someone not playing, but it does a fair enough job of adapting the player to its speed, even if it is frustrating at times.
The soundtrack is dark, moody, percussive, and perfectly matches the horror vibe Thumper gives. It’s not something to dance to, as much as it is something to survive through. Unfortunately, it also gets repetitive. The oppressive beat hammers the player’s resolve down, and with any extended period of play, it turns depressing.
If possible, I highly recommend playing Thumper in VR. The sense of speed from a traditional screen can’t come close to the sensation of flying down the tracks that virtual reality can give. It’s a significantly more intense experience with a headset on, and I found that shutting out real-world distractions allowed me to focus more on the game. As a result, complex levels later on were actually easier in VR.
However, that intensity and immersion comes at a price. More so than any other VR game I’ve experienced so far, Thumper made me nauseous when playing for more than an hour. I’m not sure if it’s a combination of the overbearing soundtrack, break-neck speed, depressing tone, or my lack of VR experience, but once near the 60-minute mark, I would have to stop playing. Limiting the length of my sessions in Thumper worked to its benefit, however — it’s best enjoyed in small, manageable bites.
Thumper isn’t going to revolutionize rhythm games, nor is it the best example of VR out there, but it’s still worth taking a look at — just be sure to listen to your body as you play. If you feel fatigued, battered down, or depressed, then take the headset off and get some air. The overall experience will be better for it. Trust me.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Drool. It is currently available on PS4 and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via Publisher and reviewed on the PSVR. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E10 and contains fantasy violence, scary tiki-heads, and prog-rock album cover protagonists. There isn’t anything gory, but some of the images might be intense for younger children. If using the VR headset, make sure to take breaks if you or your children feel ill from it.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Thumper is a music rhythm game and, as such, loses a lot without the soundtrack to go along with it. While it can be played without sound, it takes away from the overall experience.
Remappable Controls: This game’s controls are not remappable on the PS4.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.