Thumper is going to be a difficult game to describe, and I’m almost certainly not going to do a good job of giving you a clear mental picture of why I like it so much. Indeed, watching video or reading words about a game that so heavily relies on a mass of overwhelming sensory input crossed with a demand for pinpoint reflexes and instant decision-making is never going to do it justice. Really, you should be going out to play this yourself, and you have my solid recommendation that you do so.
That said, I should probably let you know a few things about the game before you go, in the service of managing expectations. Thumper is a rhythm-action game, less in the Guitar Hero or Rock Band mode and more in the style of lesser-known examples of the genre like Audiosurf or Amplitude. You, playing as a kind of armoured space beetle endlessly funneled down a slick metallic track will need to jump obstacles, will career wildly around tight corners and collect pickups as you race through the level. Perform well and get a high rating; mis-time a button press and crash into an obstacle twice and it’s back to a checkpoint with you.
While the sinuous spirals and mechanically-inspired backgrounds might remind you of Rez, this is a far less contemplative experience. The sheer speed at which obstacles fly at you is mind-boggling at first, and the cause of a great deal of salty language being flung at my monitor. Make no mistake—you will fail, a lot.
Each level is comprised of more than a dozen sub-stages, which might take a couple of minutes to clear on a perfect run, but could require many tries for the fumble-fingered. Your beetle avatar is remarkably fragile, and the course hazards require clear thinking and the ability to recognise patterns and memorise button combinations to clear effectively. Two bosses will appear during the level run, one around the mid-point and one more challenging at the end—chain perfect clearances to build up a combo, then hit a flashing pickup to damage and eventually destroy them. The soundtrack itself responds to your actions, picking up tempo and force during active sequences and rolling away during downtime.
The music is a triumph of order rising from seemingly-disparate impulses; the mood-shifting background electronica combines with the metallic scraping and crashing of your silicate carapace’s encounters with hazards and pickups to create a soundscape which is at times unsettling, exciting, confusing and elating. Personal tastes may vary—it’s worth knowing that I recently came out of a 2-hour live set from Godspeed You! Black Emperor overwhelmed by their vision while a good proportion of the audience left within the first half hour—but for me, it’s a glorious industrial-influenced symphony which meshes beautifully with the organic-metal art style.
That said, the role of the music isn’t just to be listened to passively – this is a rhythm game, and subtle cues in the soundtrack hint at another level of play available beyond the nervous twitching that characterises my time with the game. A recent Errant Signal video on Devil Daggers referred to this same sense of sensory overload and operating on half-understood cues as “playing the game in your head almost exclusively”, and that same sense of unconscious flow is certainly possible with Thumper, although I struggle to reach it for more than a few seconds at a time.
Thumper is hard, there’s no getting around that. The introduction of new hazards throughout the game necessitates the learning of new patterns to replace old ones, and upsets to old placements are thrown in regularly, which will stop you dead during a section you should be able to complete flawlessly. While it may be possible to grind out a perfect run by memorising sections of track, which are not randomly generated but intentionally placed, the sheer length of track involved in a whole level presents a fearsome challenge.
One piece of advice: I found playing this game with the keyboard incredibly uncomfortable, and was forced to switch to a gamepad after about ten minutes. While the control layout is fairly sensible, I couldn’t find an option to remap the buttons and the constant repetitive movements caused my fingers to cramp up painfully. The lesser travel of gamepad buttons and especially using a thumbstick instead of arrow keys reduced the issue significantly, without eliminating it entirely—if you experience reduced motion or arthritis in your hands, this may present issues for you.
The game is slated for release on PS4, Steam and PSVR – I tested the Steam version, which ran beautifully at 1440p on my mid-range system. I can’t speak to the VR implementation, which also launched today, although the on-rails nature of the experience could help to minimise motion sickness.