A stunning tour-de-force of immersive rhythm violence.
THUMPER is the best indie game I’ve played in 2016. I want to get that bombshell out of the way early, in part because what follows might otherwise read like blatant hyperbole, but more so because it’s vital that I hit the ground sprinting right from the jump. If I have any chance to impart my absolute, head-over-heels adoration for this game, you need to know the score early. I am one-hundred percent smitten with everything about it.
Is it right to even call THUMPER a game? It has all the hallmarks. I spent the entirety of my twelve hours inside this screaming, booming hellscape-from-beyond with a controller in my hand. And I don’t recall ever suffering any damage to my physical body. I soaked a few t-shirts through with sweat, but we’ve all done that while deep into the sixth or seventh hour of a good LAN party. And yet, THUMPER pulled something entirely real from deep within me, presented it on a chrome-plated dish, then proceeded to twist, bend and rearrange it into a laughing perversion of what it once was. And it did all of this before ever hitting its stride. By the time the credits rolled, it had taught me more about me than it had about itself.
THUMPER is a game—a rhythm game, to be exact. That’s all you really need to know, but it’s not all I’m going to tell you. The game would never allow me to get away with such a modest descriptor. It’s more appropriate to speak in intangibles. THUMPER is anxiety. It is restlessness, wretchedness, abjection, pain, failure—and ultimately, hope and triumph. It’s a reflection of everything about yourself that you hope to never face, laid bare in the stark light of Hell. It’s what Franz Kafka might dream up if he met Trent Reznor and they invented their own programming language.
Convinced yet? It’s a damn fine video game, and I urge you to use this critique as a jumping-off point to do your own investigation (i.e. buy the hell out of it).
But let’s get into the nitty-gritty. Developed over a seven-year period by Drool (a two-man team of Marc Flury and Brian Gibson), THUMPER is described as “rhythm violence,” first of its kind in an entirely new genre. It took me all of thirty seconds—soon after the start of the first level—to not only agree with that term, but to wish I had come up with it myself. The game is split into nine levels, each of which sections itself off into many dozen sublevels punctuated by checkpoints. Slamming industrial music fills the air, vague at first, but progressively more terrifying and thematically complex the further one travels.
Actually, “travel” is a bit of a misnomer. The game is anything but a leisurely Sunday drive. THUMPER places you in control of a metallic beetle from space, complete with a shiny chrome exoskeleton. Your mission, as you hurtle along the game’s twisting, winding tracks, is to match beats within the song by manipulating a two-button control scheme. Quick-tapping the A-button (X on PS4 and PSVR) “thumps” you into the ground; holding it keeps the beetle skating low and fast. The left thumbstick is used for banking turns, leaping over obstacles, reaching high into the air, and executing an even thump-ier downward slam. Mistiming your button presses will, at best, cause you to lose out on points. At worst, your beetle will take a devastating hit—shedding its wings on the first strike and its life on the second.
At the end of each mini-level, your score is tabulated and a letter grade flashes across the screen (C, B, A or S), depending on your level of precision. Button-mashing in THUMPER is unwise. Your beetle must remain disciplined while attacking the course, or the game will punch back even harder. Early levels encourage the marriage of sight and sound to help you navigate tough stretches. But by the time you hit the back half, the game is moving at a speed that can only be described as blistering and unyielding. There is very little time (or opportunity) to see far down the track. I defy any lover of racing games to point me to a title that understands speed as well as this game. It makes Sonic the Hedgehog look like a geriatric gerbil.
If you’re fortunate enough to keep your beetle intact until the end of a level, you’re greeted by a towering, glowing skull, and he REALLY doesn’t give a damn about how far you’ve come. The music adopts an even faster pace, and everything you’ve learned leading up to the climax is put to the test. Syncopated beat-patterns issue forth from the demon’s gaping mouth. Nail the sequence, and you’ll send out a damaging pulse of energy straight back into his face. But if you miss even a single button press, the sequence starts anew.
The brilliance of THUMPER—among the many, many other aspects of its design—lies squarely in the pacing. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes you’re allowed to breathe mid-stream. Momentary displays of fractal nightmares bend into frame and envelop your field of view. The environment seems at once organic and machine-like, breathing heavy with anticipation over the coming doom. And just when you think you can take the time to soak it all up, the music kicks back in, and you’re back to the fight of your life.
The coup de grace comes in the form of a virtual reality mode. PC users will have to wait a little longer before the game sees support for the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. But those lucky few that have snagged a Playstation VR headset can try THUMPER, in all it’s immersive, neck-snapping glory right now. Sure, it may literally turn your eyes into throbbing pools of blood, but it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to see the game’s towering bosses rendered several-hundred feet tall in front of you.
THUMPER represents the next logical evolution in what rhythm games can (and should) be. Where Dance Dance Revolution celebrates the purity of motion and flow, THUMPER commands you to listen to the shrieking, clanging anxiousness inside each of our minds—noises that we’re unable to quell when the evening is upon us and we long for some peace and quiet. It takes a single mechanic and spins it into a tapestry of visceral destruction. It is punishingly hard, and it will make you wish you had never fallen under its spell. In my case, it made me wish I could create something even half as brilliant.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed), PS4, PSVR ; Publisher: Drool LLC ; Developer: Drool ; Players: 1 ; Released: October 10, 2016 ; ESRB: E for Everyone ; MSRP: $19.99