Thumper is a video game about a space beetle traveling through the future to defeat giant evil faces using rhythm violence. Do I have your attention now? Good! A strange premise backed up by a trippy artstyle and an extremely intense gameplay style, Thumper basically listed everything I wanted in a rhythm game. Can it make good with the ideas or does it just thump against a wall?
Gameplay in Thumper starts off simple. You’ll be playing as a metal beetle of some sort always moving forward. You simply have to hit a button when your beetle moves over a lit spot on the ground. Naturally it doesn’t stay easy: at first you only have to hit the lit spots, but then sharp turns require you to hold the button and the analogue stick. Bumps you need to hold the button over, jumps require a lit spot and pushing up on the analogue, and more. You never need more than that one button and the analogue stick, but Thumper gets a lot of use out of those.
My biggest problem with Thumper is that there’s really no two ways around it: as a rhythm game it’s an absolute failure. The soundtrack almost always has nothing at all to do with the on screen prompts. I’ll see sections of turns and notes in the distance, but nothing in the drum-heavy soundtrack changes to signify this. There also is very little here in the way of variety. Nearly every song is an extremely similar sounding barrage of drums, with little else to listen to. I often just sorta forgot the soundtrack was even playing.
On the other hand, it’s a much more interesting fast-action arcade game. Reaction time is key, causing me to have to quickly react to every note and turn. The sense of speed as I accomplished or, more likely, consistently failed, was amazing. I’d find myself gripping my controller, white knuckled, almost like I needed to catch my breath just from focusing so hard. The feeling of completing a particularly difficult section is hard to put into words, but it’s one of the best I’ve ever felt in gaming. The frustration of tossing myself at a section only to consistently fail is also hard to put into words. Part of it doesn’t always feel like my fault though.
The most noticeable way Thumper tries to stand out from the crowd is its art, something that’s both a blessing and a curse. On one hand Thumper looks great. Its trippy visuals flow well, giving a fantastic sense of speed with the way everything zips by as you grind and fly down the path. It almost feels like someone took a music visualizer and turned it into a track. On the other hand, at times it made it difficult to see the path ahead of me. Turns and obstacles don’t stand out well enough against the background, and more than once I was completely blindsided by something. Having a great run end because a red wall wasn’t distinguishable from the red path and the red background? I wanted to cry.
Each of the nine levels in Thumper is broken into segments, anywhere between 15-30 depending on how late into the game. Each segment can take about 1-3 minutes, assuming you’re getting through them perfectly. That is, naturally, a pretty ridiculous assumption. By the end of Thumper I had probably put between 12 to 15 hours into the game, a good chunk of which came from me smashing into things. It should be noted that once you finish Thumper there’s really nothing else to do in the game. You can replay levels for a high score, but there’s no new levels or bonus modes.
The majority of most levels is just spent hitting notes and avoiding obstacles. Thumper isn’t really interested in teaching you much, rather letting you learn on the fly. Quick pop-ups on how to hit notes or grind against walls is the best you’re getting. Some elements don’t even get explained, which is infuriating. How do you stay in the air after hitting a turn? On Reddit I found out you would do this by hitting a perfect turn while flying and that it’s the only way. What’s a perfect turn? I assume it’s turning to grind exactly when you reach a turn, but that’s a guess. What does it mean when I hit enough notes in a row and a screen obscuring blue glow happens? I dunno, but it keeps getting me killed.
Occasionally, however, you’ll break into a boss fight. The basics behind a boss aren’t so different than the normal game: you’ll still be hitting the same notes and dodging the same traps. However, to defeat a boss, you need to launch missiles at it. You can only launch a missile by hitting every note in a section, causing the last note to become a missile. Miss any notes and you’ll have to repeat the section until you get it right. It’s a sometimes frustrating segment that seems more built on memorizing the sections than anything else. It also has its own smattering of strange design decisions. If you hit every note perfectly the first time, then the game will spawn a health pack for you, but if you’re hitting every note perfectly the first time, then you don’t need the health pack.
I guess strange design decisions is a great way to sum up Thumper. As a fast-paced, reaction heavy, intense game, it’s a decent enough choice. As a rhythm game, it just doesn’t make the cut. I never really saw any correlation between the music and anything else in Thumper, leaving me frustrated and annoyed. Why is the game called Thumper? Because that’s the noise my controller made as I threw it against the wall yet again.
Due to not having a PlayStation VR, I was not able to test the PSVR functionalities of the game. To my understanding they do not change the game in any fundamental way.
Thumper looks great and has some interesting ideas, but it's bogged down by strange decisions, obstacles that blend in with the environment, and a soundtrack that doesn't have much to do with the on-screen action.
- Game looks like a giant visualizer
- Soundtrack is neat
- Real sense of amazement when completing section
- Soundtrack has nothing to do with game
- Graphics hide obstacles
- Strange design decisions