Art from Thumper.

Game review: with its rhythmic play and psychedelic look, Thumper could become a VR classic

The indie game, seven years in development, stands out among recent VR releases – let’s hope it doesn’t end up as a cult favourite that arrived too soon



4/5 stars

Here they come: VR games, or virtual reality for all you old-fashioned types.

The first wave was never going to be earth shattering – this happens every time new technology rears its head – and there has been a flood of VR games released in recent weeks seeking to cash in on the trend ahead of the Christmas sales boom. And going by the majority of reviews, it seems it’s best to wait until they get better.

But there’s usually an outlier in these situations – a rogue game that slips through the cracks and ends up being lost in time as a gone-too-soon cult favourite. Whether that’ll be PlayStation 4 VR title Thumper is anyone’s guess, but the tiny indie release, seven years in development, has all the makings of a classic. There’s the overall psychedelic vibe, a hallucinogenic trip into a Tron-like world in which the player hurtles down a sleek, otherworldly highway. There’s the rhythm-action premise, a genre that appeals to hardcore and casual gamers alike, and one that’s sadly been mostly forgotten in this gaming era dominated by open worlds and role playing.

Art from Thumper.
And most importantly, there’s a perfect synergy between gameplay, interaction and virtual reality. But we’ll get to that in a second. First I should probably try to explain what Thumper is, and on the surface, it’s a basic super-speed racing game – but that’d be too easy, really.

The developers label it as “rhythm violence”, and it’s an apt tag for a game that makes the player feel every little nick, every tiny shake and every massive smash along its nine brilliantly conceived tracks. Audio plays an important role as well – each level’s music structured like a repetitive song that lulls you back into a form of muscle-memory as the challenges increase and frustration sets in.

But, most importantly, it’s about the experience – and that is where things get exciting. The game is certainly playable without the VR headset, but that would do it a disservice. Embracing its absolute physicality, throwing yourself deep into the heady amplified mix, is what it’s all about – especially when you come crashing to a halt on the many hairpin turns. It’s simple, streamlined and oh-so-effective.

And that’s what many developers aren’t yet getting about VR: it’s a fascinating medium, a huge step forward in interactive opportunities, but you have to start small. Set it up with something familiar, reel them in through a mind-altering vibe, and then thump them over the head when you have something truly exciting.