Thumper Review – Into the Mouth of Madness (PS4/PSVR)
Seven years ago, indie studio Drool set out on a vision to create what they then described as a rhythm violence game. Don’t worry, I was stumped too. How could one incorporate a sense of violence into a genre celebrated for score-chasing and fist-pumping streaks? But in those intervening years, that two-person development team crafted Thumper and suddenly, everything makes sense.
Thumper is pitched as a rhythm-action game, one that has you hurtling down a meandering neon track as a chrome space beetle, encountering scores of obstacles as you go. There are boss battles, there’s a mesmerizing soundtrack and it’s all set against a psychedelic firework display of folding polygons and elongated tentacles that would give even Marvel’s Doctor Strange a trip to remember.
A Near Perfect Harmony
The premise is fairly straightforward: From the get-go, you’re on a one-way trip into the abyss, guiding that shimmering critter down a note highway via one-button inputs. The rhythm dictates the play, and Thumper is a textbook example of a game that is deceptively simple, reeling you in with an addictive hook and intuitive controls, yet maddeningly difficult, layering on additional mechanics with each level that passes — there are nine in total — until it feels like you’re being pummelled into a corner.
It’s an assault on the senses in every which way, which goes some ways to explaining that aforementioned rhythm violence label. Because what lends Thumper its intoxicating sense of wonder is its sheer physicality. It’s designed in such a way that you feel every thump, every whack, every collision, to that point that I actually found himself grimacing if I mistimed a corner and slammed into a wall at break-neck speed.
Adding to this is the fact that Thumper grades your performance from D to S, and perfectionists will be pleased to hear that each stage literally folds into the next — after passing through a Stargate-esque checkpoint — upping the difficulty ever so slightly as you go. Each level is structured like a song; you have the verse, where you’ll typically find a new gameplay element, be that an extended spike trap or a brief moment where the track splits into four or more channels. Then, there’s the chorus, a recurring staple of beats that you’ll encounter throughout all stages in any given level. It’s here that Drool’s blistering experience can succumb to repetition. Music is repetitive by its very nature, of course, but when these recurring notes affect the actual level design, you’ll find yourself calling upon muscle memory instead of feeling consistently challenged.
Another personal gripe is that Thumper‘s trippy visuals can inadvertently become your own worst enemy. While you’re able to see fairly far down the track, the moments when the game dives into a shimmering tunnel where the corners are sharp and the margin of error practically indiscernible, those light bursts from grinding against the elongated wall can obscure the track. Thumper gives you two lives in the sense that the beetle’s chrome armour affords you one mistake, but more often than not, it’s easy to lose your protective shielding by colliding with an obstacle temporarily masked by a burst of energy. What’s more, when riding high on a 3x combo streak, the track emits a dull blue glow that can make the situation worse.
That being said, those niggles are fairly minor and don’t occur very often. Because when the stars align and Thumper sucks you in, it’s truly electrifying. Indeed if Drool’s indie gem is an intense white-knuckle ride on PS4, the experience is dramatically amplified in virtual reality to the point that it teeters on being rapturous. It’s here that the title’s physicality is on full display, and few things are as satisfying as when you ease into the rhythm on a boss level, gaining momentum as you slam, grind and launch over and under obstacles, only to approach the killer blow — a thump that sends a bolt of energy careening along the track, all the way into the mouth of madness.
In a year that witnessed a revival of Guitar Hero, Rock Band and even Amplitude, Thumper cuts through the noise like a chrome beetle hurtling down a neon track suspended in inky blackness…you get the drift. But truth be told, October has served up a stacked launch library for PlayStation VR and Drool’s game is right up there with those VR titles in contention to be the platform’s so-called ‘killer app’.
Simply put, Thumper is electrifying, and very, very close to being the perfect harmony of inspired visuals and fist-pumping audio. Its ability to dazzle and awe with its wondrous visuals is matched only by its ability to hook you in for a relentless, downright intoxicating ride. Once you’re strapped in and speeding down that serpentine track, the biggest obstacle you’ll face isn’t the literal hurdles lying in wait — it’s putting down the controller.
Thumper review code provided by publisher. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.