This is the Dark Souls of rhythm games. Imagine taking a track-based rhythm like Amplitude or AudioSurf and ramping up the speed to the insane velocity of Wipeout on its infamous Phantom class, and you’ve got a small taste of the delicious brutality of Thumper.
I’ll preface this review by stating that I’m a huge rhythm/music game fan; I’ve played and generally mastered everything since the old classics such as PaRappa the Rapper, Bust A Groove, and Gitaroo Man. I was expecting to beat this just as easily.
I was mistaken.
Tripping the light fantastic
At its core, Thumper sounds almost mindlessly easy with its single button control scheme: tap it to snag (or “kill”) incoming points, hold it to break through barriers, and steer while holding to navigate a corner. The trick is that you’ll be going through these different motions at breakneck speed as you hurtle along tracks at an insane and rather intimidating pace.
Thumper drops you into the action from the outset, your character being a shiny metallic bug streaking down an endless track in a surreal, almost ethereal backdrop. Both your bug and the track have an astoundingly glossy sheen, their vibrant neon hues contrasting nicely with the muted, grainy abyss behind. It’s a gorgeous game, but importantly the contrast helps keep the track ahead well visible, the clarity being well appreciated as you bolt along at braincrushing speed.
At the outset, seeing the game have only nine levels is a little underwhelming, but it’s deviously misleading; each level is broken down into a progressively higher number of sequences peppered by the occasional boss battle. Sequence length varies, with early tracks often being an abrupt thirty seconds or so, but as you progress later sequences can be several minutes long.
Thankfully, you’re able to resume your progress from whichever sequence you’ve reached, so you won’t have to do an entire level from scratch whenever you finish playing. This is nice, because you will fail, and you will fail a lot.
Thumper isn’t entirely unforgiving: you’re allowed one collision. Failing to break through a barrier or smashing into a corner will annihilate your protective outer shell; take another hit and you’re dead, and you’ll have to start that particular sequence from scratch. Couple this with some of the painfully long sequences from later levels and you end up with a surprising amount of tension.
Reaching the end of a sequence, as well as successfully hitting a long chain of points in a row, spawns a special glowing point which restores your protective shell, or serves as a score multiplier boost if you’re already intact. It’s a welcome safety net, if a fragile one — lose your shell early on in a prolonged sequence, and every upcoming turn and barrier adds to the pressure as you desperately pray to reach the end, moving on the next point and avoiding having to do that whole sequence again.
While having to repeat a sixty second sequence sounds trivial on paper, it’s truly difficult and frustrating to repeatedly rocket around a track, timing your presses and movements perfectly at extremely high speed. As you progress you’ll be relying on a combination of figuring out the underlying rhythms and raw muscle memory in order to bolster through.
Mental fatigue kicks in quickly with Thumper, too — at higher levels I’d place it on par with Rock Band‘s “Green Grass and High Tides” or Amplitude‘s “Synthesized” on their maximum difficulties. Once fatigue sets in, you really do need to take a break for a bit to recover, so it’s nice that Thumper makes it easy to jump out and jump back in whenever you need to.
While you don’t technically need to hit every point along the track — you’re able to hold the action button down and casually take every corner, should you wish — there are two drawbacks to the approach. If you’re going for a spot on the leaderboards you absolutely will want to master the rhythms in each sequence; secondly, it’s good practice to be accustomed to hitting everything in preparation for boss battles.
Boss battles are scattered throughout the levels, with an extra tough boss battle against antagonist Crakhed serving as the finale for each. These differ slightly in that instead of surviving from start to finish, you’ll be trapped in a looping sequence, and you’ll have to hit everything to progress. Clear a sequence fully, and you’ll deliver a neon blast of energy to the boss before moving onto the next sequence in the fight, and you’ll win if you can complete every sequence. Fail on any part, and you’re back to the start of the entire battle.
Thumper‘s difficulty ramps well over time, with subsequent levels often introducing new mechanics to be aware of. Reach the second level and you’ll have to start flying over particular obstacles as well as dealing with the existing barriers and corners at breakneck speed; a little later and you’ll be greeted with the track splitting into multiple lanes, with points and obstacles sprinkled across each.
A dark and foreboding presence
A vital aspect of any music or rhythm game is of course, the soundtrack, and it’s another area where Thumper chooses to deviate from the norm. Instead of the typical approach of having a breadth of songs across multiple genres, you’ll be racing along to an ominously dark and brooding ambient soundtrack punctuated by the pounding industrial sounds of your ship smashing through barriers and grinding around corners. It’s an oppressive, slightly uncomfortable minimalist background that leaves the emphasis on sounds created by your own actions.
You’ll essentially be supplying the percussion as you race along, stomping squares for bassy kickdrums and developing and learning the underlying rhythms of each level. Much of the time the rhythms will be diverse and unpredictable and, if you’re not familiar with genres that seem to influence Thumper‘s soundtrack — such as industrial, jungle, or dark psybient — then the many abrupt changes in the delivery of rapid-fire staccato beats can surprise and sometimes frustrate.
Thumper also supports PlayStation VR; this isn’t something we’re able to test right now, but it’s useful to know in case you’re thinking about picking up a VR headset and looking out for launch titles that support it. Given the high velocity madness of the core Thumper experience, I’m sure that playing in VR ramps up the insanity even more.