Thumper is Hypnotic, Visceral and Incredible in PSVR
Ben Sheene / Jun 29th, 2016 No Comments
In the distance an ominous, pulsing circle looms above me like a black hole. But rather than sucking in every atom nearby atom it spews forth purple and black tendrils that flap like sickly angel’s wings. Shafts of light and color flicker in an out of existence. From the hole, like a black tongue, a track twists and bends into the infinite space behind me. Music thuds and crescendos, weighing down on me with primal, trance-inducing rhythm. And here I am, a space beetle, racing towards some unknown purpose, completely enthralled by what’s happening before me.
A New Rhythm
No, I’m not describing a recent foray into hallucinogenics, just my time with one of the stand out games of E3 2016. Welcome to Thumper, a rhythm game that eschews the genre’s traditions in inventive ways while creating an immersive sensory experience.
Thumper is the product of Brian Gibson and Marc Flury, who make up developer Drool. Gibson – who you might recognize as bassist for the band Lightning Bolt – worked on games like Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and Amplitude at Harmonix. Flury served as lead programmer for Harmonix’s The Beatles: Rock Band and Dance Central. So it should come as no surprise that DNA from those games trickled into Thumper.
Even players with a passing knowledge of rhythm games will recognize one of Thumper’s primary mechanics: the highway. In all the Rock Band and Guitar Hero games the notes of songs appeared as colored icons that rushed from the top of a vertical shaft to the bottom. Nail the timing of when the icons hit the line at the bottom of the highway and suddenly you and your plastic instrument are playing songs like a professional, kind of. Gameplay in Thumper borrows that same core but uses it in a way more similar to Amplitude. But instead of the strings of a guitar, a spaceship, or a simple horizontal line, players are represented by a metallic beetle that reflects the constantly changing swirl of lights and colors.
In this game, timed music notes are replaced by thumps and sharp turns and barriers to crash through. A handful of introductory stages allow players to become acclimated to the timing and the logic of Thumper. See that small glowing section coming at you down the twisting path? Tap X at the right moment and you will get points for hitting that “thump” and move on to the next segment. Sharp turns are then introduced, requiring players to move the stick away from the turn while holding down X. Then players must contend with a series of tiny barriers on the path that are crushed by holding down X.
My time with Thumper only included these three obstacles, each tackled with a button press and/or minimal movement on the left stick. That might make it sound too boiled down for a rhythm game but in this context it works. Marketing for Thumper has smartly and accurately described it as “rhythm violence.” The game is very much in your face as the lane players travel on becomes cluttered with obstacles, hurtling towards the bottom with force and speed. As the beetle crashes through barriers you can feel the impact as the music responds in kind. Every turn and slam is an intense battle to avoid an inevitable crash that will shatter your beetle’s wings, exposing it for a second, fatal hit.
The sheer force of everything happening in Thumper can often make it feel like an assault on the senses. The game does not want you to be a passive player when navigating quick chains of actions, the breakneck speed of what’s happening on screen is a testament to that. What’s interesting about the game is how the obstacles exist as notes in the music in a kind of call and response activity. Amid the droning bass and electronic harmonies these obstacles appear in the distance with an unmistakable beat and flash. Players who are in tune with the rhythm can land a thump or perfectly or hit a turn at the last second. In gameplay these net more points and increase the multiplier. But the greater thrill is hearing an obstacle appear as a beat in the music, anticipating the execution, and then creating a new beat in the music just by playing.
It’s this kind of soundscape is allowing Thumper to transcend a simple “playing the notes” experience. I’m interested in seeing if this synergy between player, gameplay, and music can continue with a variety of tracks. While the combination of barriers and sharp turns only provided a harder challenge in the late stages of the demo, the final game will have multiple highways to switch between and a few other gameplay twists. Those layers should provide even more avenues for mastery and failure.
In the same way players are asked to mimic popular songs by reacting to button prompts, Thumper absorbs you into its aural and visual experience, pushing out other stimuli. There have been times where I’ve played rhythm games and found myself completely transfixed by what’s happening on the screen in front of me. My fingers push buttons like I’m playing notes to a song I’ve known for years. At E3 I was fascinated at seeing people nod their heads to the thunderous beat of the game, as if they were standing in the crowd at a concert. Rather quickly the game creates this happy place between all the rhythmic violence where you simply dig the hell out of it.
Considering the intensity of the visuals as they pour into the player’s field of vision, I was both curious and worried as to how the game would play on PSVR. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Thumper is incredible in virtual reality. Music that was already hauntingly absorbing takes you over. Players sit tightly behind the beetle and are able to look around at everything in three dimensions. The tunnel, the colors, and the rhythmic madness drown your eyes while the wide field of view makes everything larger and more impressive. The addition of headphones drowning out most sound allowed Thumper to be the only thing that existed and mattered for about ten minutes. I was just conscious enough of the controller to slam down on the X button as if I was really riding that space beetle.
Having the negative space on the left and right of the track in Thumper while music blares in your ears is almost an indescribable experience. Your eyes are focused straight down the middle while sound occupies the left and right, filling in the visual blanks of the screen. When thinking of virtual reality, it’s common to see it as a way to enhance first-person games and other experiences. I see it as a way to draw players deeper into the game, making them feel like they are a part of it. After playing Thumper and having such an incredible time, I’m comfortable with saying it could be one of the best PSVR experiences players may have when the device launches in October.
Thumper is out on Oct. 13 for PS4, PSVR, and Steam.
tags: Drool , e3 , E3 2016 , preview , ps4 , PSVR , Thumper