Developed by Drool, Thumper is the twisted love child of developers Brian Gibson, the bassist for the band Lightning Bolt as well as a contributing artist for a number of Harmonix games, and Marc Flury, a former programmer for the same studio. Over the course of six years, the two-man team has refined Thumper into a shiny, sadistic rhythm game that aims to make the player integral to the music.
You play as a cosmic beetle which must thump, slide, and glide with pinpoint precision along a linear track, hitting notes and breaking through various obstacles in time to the pulsing soundtrack. While there isn't much of a story to speak of, you yourself are going to undergo a journey of sorts.
Intense is the only way to describe Thumper's gameplay. The premise is simple – input a singular button and a few directional keys at the right times in order to avoid obstacles and improve your score. Glowing notes on the floor are triggered with the spacebar while sharp turns are bested by holding the spacebar and an appropriate directional key. Occasionally, some obstacles require you to glide over them by holding upwards instead. That's it. Yet Thumper effortlessly extracts so much variety from this rudimentary control scheme as it continuously ups the ante from level to level. While the first half hour will probably be spent hitting maybe 2 notes in quick succession with the odd turn thrown in there, the latter portions of the game will have you strumming your controller with all the finesse of a musician.
Thumper follows a fairly repetitive formula to each of its levels – a couple dozen stages and 1-2 bosses. Happily, the repetition works well in this case as the unavoidable fear of an upcoming boss ties in nicely with the game's general atmosphere of dread. The exponential difficulty curve, as well as the oppressive visuals, continuously demand more from the player and will punish you in a heartbeat if you aren't paying full attention. As you barrel through the levels, skidding into the wall after wall at breakneck speed, it feels like the game is battering you into submission. In the later levels, the urgency is so palpable that you'll barely hold on by a thread. It's visceral and oh so satisfying when you live through it.
Survival isn't everything, however. At the end of each stage you will be ranked on your performance with a score of either S, A, B or C. While it's entirely possible to push your way through the game with only C ranks, Thumper is a much more rewarding and lengthy experience when you try to push yourself to learn the proper timings and skills required to chase those elusive S ranks. Perfect turns, zero mistakes, and complete understanding of your movement options are what bumps you up from average to elite. The game likes to throw similar rhythms at you from time to time so it's in your best interest to master them as they appear rather than struggle on the longer, more difficult tracks later in the game. Essentially, each stage within a level is designed to be a harsh teacher that progressively imparts wisdom through trial and error. There is an undeniable euphoria as you find yourself almost hypnotically blasting out whole strings of beats that only a few minutes ago were completely baffling.
The brief interludes between some of the stages give you just enough time to catch your breath before you are once again bombarded by familiar rhythms, subtly adapted and tied together in new and more challenging ways. The bosses are perhaps the best examples of this as they frequently can only be beaten by mastering the lessons the prior stages have doled out.
It should be clear by now that Thumper is not an easy game. Its explanations of how to pull off some of the more complex manoeuvres are lacking, and each stage only allows two mistakes before death. The difficulty curve ramps up significantly at around the halfway mark, turns can sometimes come up so fast that you simply won't have time to react unless you've already had a few tries at the level prior. The bosses too, like to rely on entertaining yet, arguably, cheap tricks and must be beaten 4 times in a row before you can progress. For those that are looking for something to relax to, or have short tempers, this is likely not the game for you.
Although some will find these hardships to be a detriment, many others will find them to be the major draw of Thumper. This is a hardcore rhythm game that never compromises on what it sets out to do: assault your senses in every way possible. Personally, I enjoyed the challenge; the harder Thumper got the most rewarding it became to pull off those perfect runs (or as close as I could get to perfect). Remembering the frequent fumbles of my earlier hours with the game, there is an inescapable sense that you have achieved some sort of godhood as you blitz through stages stuffed with ten times the difficulty. Thumper is a trial by fire.
Sound and Graphics
Unsurprisingly, a huge part of why the gameplay is so great is that the accompanying audio is absolutely superb. The soundtrack never fails to rile the player up with its emphasis on hard hitting drums, bleak industrial beats, and rapidly building crescendos, some of which last for what feel like an eternity in the lengthier stages. Each of the sound effects, especially the ones that you create, are designed specifically to feel natural as if you are the one making the music through your repeated successes. The grinds, scrapes and thuds of your beetle make up much of the harsh metallic tones of the score, immersing you within the events onscreen far more than the average rhythm game.
What is important about this, however, is that the background music does not necessarily sync up with the sounds of the beats you will be creating. Because of this, your ability to memorise the course and the way in which particular strings of obstacles are to be tackled will come from both memory and visuals, not the sounds that would fit with the background music playing at the time. A small few may be bothered by this. On the other hand, once you've grown more accustomed to the game, a particularly attentive ear will be able to discern what many of the obstacles coming up are just through listening for the noise they make as they appear onscreen.
Visually, Thumper continues to impress. The backgrounds are dark and engrossing, your beetle a shining light descending into the abyss. Perfect geometry juxtaposes with writhing tentacular masses to create an aesthetic of uncanny horror. No explanation is ever provided, but it all feels like some sort of sci-fi hell. The bosses certainly reinforce this, their designs ranging from cold machinery to twisting nightmare creatures.
Each of the obstacles you avoid or smash through also look plenty pleasing, but at some points, their sheer intensity, as well as those of the backgrounds, can become overwhelming. The better you are doing at the game, the more particle effects you will be creating, and the more distracting the visual effects you will have to contend with. Considering how the tracks twist and turn and just how much focus you have to be paying at all times, your eyes will be red raw before long.
Each of the very few criticisms that can be levelled at Thumper is subjective. Does the game have insane visuals that can sometimes be distracting? Yes, but damn do they look utterly amazing. Is the game crushingly hard in places? Yes, and it makes the experience all the better for it. The game is a huge leap for its genre; by tying the player's actions into the phenomenal audio, Drool has created a very pure, very personal style of rhythm hell. Over the course of its roughly ten-hour playtime, every aspect of the rather simple concept is explored. The final boss in particular hammers home just how complete and fleshed out a vision Thumper really is.
|+ Exciting, fast-paced gameplay that rewards skill.||– Visuals can be overwhelming at times.|
|+ Dark, suspenseful atmosphere.||– Certain boss fights can feel cheap.|
|+ Sleek art style that channels Geiger-esque cosmic horror.|
|+ Pulse-pounding soundtrack.|
|+ Simplistic control scheme.|
|+ Highly challenging, highly rewarding.|
|+ Lengthy and fun to play.|