I first encountered Thumper at EGX 2015; the whitewashed bland booth it was placed within contained a lot of experimental games that were at the start of their development. While seated I could see “Thumper” scribbled using a sharpie over some masking tape, my expectations weren’t high. However, from the ten minute demo, Thumper had managed to burrow itself into my mind, with its stunning and unusual visuals. When asked to review it, I jumped at the chance, wondering whether it would confirm the expectations I had. The short answer is yes.
From the main menu, selecting Play, will drop you into the voids of space, taking the form of a space beetle as you look to confront your nemesis, a maniacal giant head. Don’t let that put you off – Thumper doesn’t rely on storytelling to keep your attention– because quite frankly there isn’t any However, whatever Thumper lacks in story, it more than makes up for in gameplay.
Drool described Thumper as a “Violent Rhythm” game, and with programmer Marc Flury’s association with Haramonixs you start to see where his previous employment creeps in. The stages start simple as you learn the different mechanics the game offers, whilst also introducing you to the games soundtrack. Using primarily the joystick and A (or RB) you have to manoeuvre yourself through each stage, while timing your presses to maintain the rhythm and your combo. Timing is everything. Timing keeps you alive, keeps the games tempo flowing, and continues to build your combo. As you progress, the track you’re on starts to become more congested with the different mechanics, while expanding as you switch lanes to continue the tempo. It becomes intense, a little too intense at times, especially through the latter stages, as I entered a sort of zen moment where I felt that I and the game were one, concentrating so intensely that I wasn’t even remembering to blink. This lead to a searing a headache.
At the end of each stage, you will be ranked from either S to C, depending on how well you faired. S rank are easy to obtain through the first level, but as you progress these soon drop as you concede, hoping you can just make it to the end of the stage. There are nine different level each containing around 25 stages. As you progress the difficulty increases, with new mechanics introduced at the start of each level. Some are simple evolutions, but others can turn into real roadblocks. Level 5 was a prime example of this as it introduces a metal ring. In order to tackle this obstacle, you had to time your taps, otherwise an unstoppable laser will chop you in half. It would have been less frustrating if there were a prompt on screen to teach you how the new mechanic worked, instead your were left in the dark, with only trial and error as your aid.
Once you have finished a level, you can replay it to try and beat your previous score– however, there isn’t an option to go back to just a certain stage, instead you have to replay the whole level again. This can be very frustrating, especially if you only had one more S rank to obtain. Play + is basically a hardcore version of the Thumper. If you die in Play + it’s game over, your score will be totalled, and good luck when you try again. This option provides an even deeper challenge for players that may have perfected each level.
As you first control the space beetle, speeding into the first stage into the voids of space, you can immediately see the uniqueness Thumper has to offer visually. It’s unlike anything I have played before. Alongside the soundtrack, it feels as though I have entered an interactive Microsoft visualizer that used to feature on their media player. The colours also change to the mood and tempo the game is playing out. If you’re in a state of calmness, the colours will be peaceful and relaxing, but during the latter parts of the game, where everything becomes so much more intense, colours will become bold and strong.
A violent rhythm game, would be nothing without it’s soundtrack and composer Brian Gibson has produced a masterpiece that is fantastically woven throughout Thumper. The tempo will start slow, allowing yourself to get into the flow and feel the rhythm. As you progress, you will gradually increase in speed as well as tempo. Between boss battles, you will find you yourself totally immersed as you hurtle through the stages, weaving through obstacles, adjusting to sharp corner, while the back of your mind starts to understand, that you really just the composer, orchestrating the music while trying to survive. I physically felt relived when I reached a respite in between stages, but was also eager to get right back in the think of it.