Rhythm and song are quintessential to life: it’s what brings you brevity, emotion, and uplifting enlightenment. You have to subject yourself to it, give in to the beat and just let the music take over you. It’ll either lead you to the equivalent of a contact high, or doing a Peewee Herman dance in a sweaty nightclub, to the shame of your fellow patrons. My point is that Thumper is THE contact high.
The dish of the week comes to us from Drool LLC, a two man team of a musician (Brian Gibson) and a programmer (Marc Flury). Together they created Thumper which released last year for PS4 and Steam, to mild acclaim from anyone who wasn’t playing Mafia III or Gears of War 4. Since then, it’s slowly trickled out for other platforms, or DROOLed onto other consoles (I’m sorry). to the Nintendo Switch, and finally the Xbox One, which is the version we will be reviewing here.
If you’ve already played the game, you’d know that’s like reviewing the MS-DOS Diet Coke version of Mega Man 2 instead of the NES Coke Classic, but there’s a mild difference between the two. While the Xbox One may not sport the VR that it seems Thumper was designed for, leaving the experience muted on Microsofts’ maligned baby, it still doesn’t matter because this game kicks all sorts of ass, from the rhythm-action genre, to video games of all sorts.
I’m dead serious, Thumper is my Game of The Year so far, mostly for the burst of life is provides for gaming in general. We’ve seen the concept tried and tested before, with Spectra and GRIDD: Retroenhanced offering bombastic beats but with a flash game attached to them, but Drool came here to polish this idea to a mirror shine, leaving its competitors and other music game fodder in the dust.
You are a space beetle, running through the space highways, looking for some space, err.. Space, to settle down in. Unfortunately, like the Only Road in Canada, it’s filled with intergalactic nightmares and beasts, ready to destroy you and turn you to polygons. You’ve got to submit to the rhythm and get in tune, in order to defeat the cosmic crazies.
From there, you’ve got to respond to the upcoming obstacles with the right trick. Be a short burst of levitation, brute force through the walls, or sliding across the walls that the beasts will conjure, it all comes across with flow and well-placed prediction. Most of the time, I should say, sometimes the background visuals will come into the foreground and despite an audio cue, you probably won’t hear it coming due to the epic music playing.
After a while, levels will get longer and the variation of skills will turn you into a robotic monster, speeding through the tunnels with lethality. Pace is an issue past level 4, with some of them containing the dullest lulls, even when new mechanics are introduced, but when the beats hit, they hit.
Speaking of the tunes, when I first saw this game, the neon-tinted graphics and overall cyberpunk look of the game implied a heavy techno feel. Autechre meets Daft Punk, if you catch my drift. However, it’s more like a warcry than an EDM groove, with drums, clashes of metal and claps uniting the music and gameplay together. The clashing of metal comes from your space beetle scraping against the tracks twisting turns, another smooth layer to add to the dense orchestra.
The graphics themselves also deserve high praise, with their sleek and shiny overtones hiding something far more sinister. The bosses of the levels are designed in a fever dream style, with their dark appendages twisting around the track and the 2001-esque droning sounds adding a much more terrifying angle to the game entirely. It’s like Eraserhead meets an Aphex Twin music video.
The levels overstay their welcome in a minor manner, with beats being repetitious in nature and a lot of sequences simply just repeating way too quickly. I’d say that’s just normal song structure, however I feel like the game shouldn’t call for that. To look back on Spectra, the music wasn’t designed around the game, but the procedurally generated obstacles and paths still had some intertwining connection to the music.
The challenge it offers at the start is accessible to anybody of any skill level, yet if you’re the kind of guy who misses the days where he could go back and 100% Through The Fire and Flames on Expert, this is the game for you. In order to get the highest scores, you’ll need to figure out the exact beat for the aforementioned track, and what follows is a hypnotizing sequence of slamdowns and light shows.
Near the end, that chance of freedom slowly deteriorates and you will have to perform perfectly in order to continue. The skill ceiling past level 3 is monstrously tall, and even with checkpoints being handed to you like free samples, the victory of surpassing it is somewhat drained from you. The boss fights also have this issue, but to a lesser extent, due to the incredible visual trip they offer.
It’s clear that the VR and music aspect came first before gameplay (With Mark Flury confirming the latter last year), so the visuals probably translate a lot better in an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, than it does my 32 inch TV. But it still works in a dimly lit room, evading all forms of contact and just letting the audio take you. That’s where this game works; in Drools’ skill of taking you on a journey.
It’s sublime; to see Drool strip the rhythm-action genre down to its roots and build it back up again is a beautiful thing to watch, and the only thing I could ask for in the future is a custom soundtrack option. Marc Flury has stated that the music came before the gameplay, which is fair. But to go back to the example of Spectra, it certainly had a much more tighter focus than its predecessors of “albums-with-games-attached”, with the mechanics of the game helping that possibility push even more.
Maybe that’s for another time, however, as right now, Thumper is in the spotlight, and should not go away for a while. All of the complaints are mere nitpicks at a perfectly solid core, and what starts as an auditory dream, develops into a visual nightmare, in all the best ways. You might have played rhythm-action games before, but not like this. This is a new step in the right direction. Where Guitar Hero and Rock Band burned, Thumper rose out of the ashes and rebuilt its legacy from the ground up.
Just get Thumper right now, goddamnit.
A audible and visionary wonder which reinvents the rhythm-action genre.