Typer Reviews – THUMPER

I should preface this entire review with two things: I don’t think Dark Souls games are hard. And I love rhythm games.

I know that’s an odd thing to mention but I think it’s important that in video games we distinguish the difference between “hard” and “challenging”. Dark Souls is a game that you most certainly will die to many times but not because the game is some super-fast hard to master experience. While the early entries had a horrible learning system in place for players, and Dark Souls 2 did include some rather poorly designed encounters, the Souls series has always been a group of games mostly about players finding the way to overcome obstacles and find the sense of hope in accomplishment. Typically those ways can include some simple workarounds. Lots of bosses have a gimmick that lets you beat them quickly or with ease (BUTTS ARE A COMMON WEAKNESS). It’s only with the exceptional character action-based boss fights like Artorias and Gwyn from Dark Souls 1, The Pursuer and The Fume Knight in Dark Souls 2,  or Maria and Orphan of Kos from Bloodborne that you get the sense of a boss fight that is actually technically hard as there is a lot to learn, a lot of depth, and a challenge that stretches players to their technical limits. That’s when those games actually get hard and you feel like you’re playing a boss fight at the end of Sonic 2 and you’re analyzing pixels that you can attack safely and when you’re able to do so.

I discuss all of this because THUMPER is by all definitions a hard game. The demands placed on the player to win and keep their points and rank up get more and more complex. This all happens rather fast. By about stage 4 of 9 I started ranking at my lowest every first time through a stage. The player gets less and less time to learn the deeper tricks and abilities being thrown at them that they can perform as the game gets faster and faster with more congestion on the game’s audio highway. It’s a hard game by no stretch of my imagination. And it’s a phenomenal experience very quickly placing this as one of the best games I’ve touched all year.

First though I should talk more about my affinity for rhythm games. Because ever since my brother got Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix for the Xbox back in 2001 or so I realized there’s an incredible untapped experience in music with video games. I played DDR: Ultramix more than the horrible Medal of Honor: Rising Sun I got that holiday season because it’s just fun and it’s exciting to hit your notes on time and music is its own fuel for engagement. We get into the music we enjoy so engaging in our music through mechanical actions adds a layer of kinetic connection that air-guitar never really gives us. I even credit DDR: Ultramix with actually introducing me to trance music alongside The Bourne Identity long before my best friend got me into it. The game had Castles in the Sky and Ready Steady Go, two trance classics. Half a decade later the frenzy of Guitar Hero and Rock Band took these connections to a closer-to-literal state and I don’t know that I’ll ever forget the first time I played “Lazy Eye” by Silversun Pickups in Rock Band (having already been familiar with the song). I did a nearly perfect run on it on Normal, but the experience was something transcendental as it was no longer difficult and I could simply feel the next note coming to me. As many people could describe it before: You could close your eyes and you were one with the music and the small plastic guitar in your hands, there was no TV or game anymore. And then in 2008 or so I bought Audiosurf. And jeez if you need any more a ringing endorsement for rhythm games from me its this one.

I’ve played a lot of games over the years and while Steam doesn’t have my pre-Steam experienced hours playing Knights of the Old Republic 1, 2, and Half-Life 2 to death, I can’t say for certain that I played either of those games more than I have played Audiosurf. I mean, just look at this:

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The only game I’ve racked up more hours on Steam than playing Audiosurf is Team Fortress 2; my go-to-social-shooter experience. And this isn’t a surprise either: Audiosurf is a game that lets you play virtually any music in your library meaning the game’s replay value is theoretically endless as you just find a new way to experience all of the new music you buy. Audiosurf is a king of creating a sense of “ride” and creating an experience to your music that wasn’t quite there before, bring in a whole new way to listen to it.

And Thumper is a game that has instantly placed itself on the rhythm game trophy shelf. Like Guitar Hero and Audiosurf before it, Thumper is a game that (in a very different way) removes all other distractions from your life and engrosses you in the experience of music. What first attracted me to the game wasn’t actually the gameplay as many previews showed what the game looks like. Those trailers didn’t quite deliver how things work from moment to moment because gameplay segments were too short  to show how it all linked to music. Instead I got interested when I heard Thumper wasn’t another game using licensed music. Audiosurf and Guitar Hero are incredible games but those same games and their close relatives (Beat Hazard, Rock Band, any other rhythm game on Steam) have a vital flaw that you notice if you play enough of the type: The algorithms used to generate or create the gameplay experience typically relate to some sort of an “intensity” read as well as note-detection tools. Notes create blocks or items to “hit” and loudness or BPM determines speed and intensity. This is why Audiosurf sometimes reads 175 BPM drumstep tracks (fast!) get read at half their time signature (and so exist as 87.5 BPM…not so fast) and are a very slow uphill slope in-game. And so while the mechanics are simple and the variety wide, the gameplay has a limitation of depth.

And this is what hooked my interest in Thumper: The game is built off its own soundtrack. This isn’t some generated track based off music. This is a game constructed with the music. The music serves as the sheet rock on which the nine 20+ minute stages are built and allow the gameplay to follow the design of “Simple but deep”, which is the type of hook that gets players coming back for more (like Minecraft does). This changes the very principle in which we approach Thumper and the music in it, which is fitting since the gameplay is approached in a similar fashion.

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Simple but deep. You’re a lone beetle on a track and various geographic obstacles show up on the track. Lights are bass notes you “thump” on by pressing the action button in time with your beetle running over it. Rods block your way on the track and you have to hold the action button while driving through them. If you don’t, you’ll take damage or die. Two hits in this game and you have to start over from the last checkpoint. Turns require the player to hold their action button and move (thumbstick or keyboard arrows) in the direction of the turn. If you turn too late or not at all, you’ll take damage or die. And that’s it. As the game progresses players learn they can fly short distances, smash the ground and create shockwaves, extend their flight with PERFECT turns, turn their beetle and hop between small lanes without losing their vulnerability. The tricks and actions the player is expected to learn are a part of the experience and actually are a part to beating the game’s very hard stages. The other part is learning how your tricks and patterns you are executing play into the music.

And that is just something I can’t explain to you. I can only tell you that when you play Thumper, put on headphones, turn up your volume, and listen to the music while you play. It’s imperative that you do this during Thumper as you’ll soon learn the whole transcendental music experience that breaks boundaries here is in what the developers (Drool) coin “Rhythm Violence”. You’ll bob your head, you’ll pound your feet on the ground, you’ll raise and lower your head as you fly up for bursts of time before slamming down on a beat, all to an engrossing heavy soundtrack that was built for the experience, and the experience was built on the soundtrack. These two elements of the game go hand-in-hand and play so much into the gameplay, into you. You will not understand Thumper until you let the game consume your audio-visual focus and you find yourself timing things perfectly, creating counter-sounds with your perfect timing because perfectly timed actions in-game have a slightly higher pitch, contrasting against the darkly toned soundtrack. In the second stage things got so intense and exciting while I was simultaneously trying to learn a pattern the game was forcing on me that I needed a breather.

And then the game gave me one. It was so unexpected that the soundtrack had built in moments of relief from the intense, tightly composed drum and synthy music but it did. I was so taken back by the moment that I almost wondered if the beautiful fractal landscape the game takes place in was going to morph and swallow me whole (it didn’t feel far off from that to begin with honestly). Things are closed in in this game even though many spaces are open and lead you into and out of tunnels. Thumper’s environment covers a range of dark colors sprawled against a large open environment. However Drool have worked hard to ensure that even the intense neons work to funnel the player’s vision and feel closed in. As you reach new sections you’ll see upcoming tunnels and the geography will sort of feel impossible as the tunnels are displayed as shapes against the large wall of the world surrounding you. Yet as you enter the tunnel it doesn’t really look like you ever hit the wall (and maybe you don’t). This game will feel reminiscent of Tron to many. It’s a wonder to gaze at and I’m dying to get my hands on someone’s PSVR. I’m ready to find someone I know and pay them $20 just to let me buy the game on their account and play it in VR mode because this has to be something of wonder to experience that way. With the bassy design, and the spaces of the game where you play a tiny beetle in a world full of cthulhu monster faces and weird shapely enemies, this must be a visceral game to play with a headset strapped on.

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But the game’s not perfect, far from it. I think this circles us back to our discussion about being hard and as I got to stages 5 or 6 in the game I started wondering if this game was too hard. The concepts and tricks you’re expected to learn start ramping up fast and I was finding myself failing a lot, frustratingly so. And so I checked myself thoroughly, it’s why I’m reviewing this so much later than I expected to. I would play 2 new stages of the game and then go play all the stages prior before moving onwards. Not only did I increase my rank on the first 4 stages, I surpassed my high score on every stage 1-7 (I didn’t replay 8 or 9 yet). And so I felt reassured that while this game is difficult, you can beat it. I’m 24 and supposedly I’m right at the apex of my best hearing and response time before my reflexes are just going to start fading on me. And I can proudly say I ranked “A” (rank goes from S to A to B to C) on stages 1 and 2, and “B” on stages 3, 4, and 5. I can only imagine how much easier those stages are now that I’m done with the game.

I also think there’s some rather lengthy flaws I should talk about here too. The game’s rhythmic patterns and “enemies” are almost deconstructed during the boss battles. It breaks down and avoids the established patterns during the stage leading up to the moment while still reinforcing the thing you’ve learned. (again, another positive thing there) Each boss has 4 phases of patterns that you must hit each “thump” in to receive a glowing “thump” that you can send back to the boss and damage them. Land each “thump” the first time through a phase, and you’ll receive a point bonus and health refill. One moment in a final boss battle wasn’t even a danger to my precious beetle, instead the game was trying to teach me something I could’ve been doing all this time. And yes, those moments where you learn that technique is game changing, and will easily up your rank or high score on a previous stage. However in stage 6 (I THINK) an early boss battle in that stage cheats. The game’s stages are all scripted except this one moment in the game. It was so offsetting and immediately noticeable, it’s quite an unfair moment because you literally can’t learn or predict anything and your ability to perfectly re-do a phase if you fail is lost here. Speaking of stage 6, around the later half of the game we’re introduced to more and more dangerous hazards or enemies. These are things that actually require you to perfectly play out the boss fight or you take damage. So if you took damage but still hit the thumps perfectly, you get a full health. But hazards in later boss fights take away your health WHEN you miss a thump, making it impossible to get your health back. I almost wanted the game to give players a leveled-up health amount in stage 6 or 7 onwards just because of these increased pressures for perfection. The game gets more aggressive with you but gives you nothing to fight it besides your own resolve and built-in learned effect. Luckily the game doesn’t keep doing this for final bosses.

Also stage 7 onwards is…odd. The developers weren’t running out of ideas but their ways of ramping up difficulty becomes crazy. Up to that point every stage had new techniques to learn that were taking me by surprise and I was loving it. Stage 3 involves teaching the player how to slam the track and switch between flying and grinding. Stage 4 involves small lane shifts and your first encounter with small snake enemies. I think stage 5 was the first one to point the tracks downwards and I found myself pausing the game in a surprised glee, getting up to refill on water, and giddily talking to myself that this is a game of the year contender for me. But stage 7 reels back on track congestion, leading to less focus on the strong rhythms and more on a trick players can learn to do if their timing is PERFECT for longer stretches of time. It’s not easy to master (at least for me) and not something very rewarding in my opinion. It feels like maybe a bit of a calmer chapter at times and it just feels oddly placed because stage 8 goes so fast in such a dimly lit chapter that your sense of timing is out of whack when you start it. The small level recaps at the top left of your screen don’t even have time to fade away and tell you what level you’re on next before you’re already missing turns on the next level taking damage. It’s almost going too fast for its own good. The music also seems to get quieter and harder to place your beat in these stages before we reach stage 9. At this point I was just holding it together to get through the tracks, I could barely perform the complex crazy mechanical controller button mashes I was expected to do here. It was intense through and through though, sticking to the game’s “rhythm violent” focus the whole way. And every once in a while when I did do the crazy hard thing the game wanted me to, I felt ecstatic. Times when I’d nail those level endings I’d double fist the air in joy and then I’d not see the approaching rods and take damage again or die.

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The point I’m getting at is that Thumper overcomes its weak points. And for people wondering if there’s any story to this…well…no. Not exactly. But the developers had an understanding that the recurring things we see across the game (the weird shapes spitting stuff at us to hurt us, the beetle, the Cthulhu head boss fights, that weird triangle in the sky we see before every Cthulhu head boss fight, and even the swirly dark horizon itself) are something the players fixate on to a degree. And so as you reach the 9th level final boss and behold THAT monstrosity (I’m so glad you don’t find it with an easy Google Image search) players will get a good sense that this game is delivering on its own setups. And then you’ll beat the boss and the game will go on for a little while longer. Trust me, the way this game ends is fitting, abrupt, and serves its purpose. There’s no giant revelation or tiny details to work out. There’s just the feeling you’ve…escaped.

And with that I can say with confidence Thumper is a game you absolutely should experience. This game sticks with you thanks to its simple-but-deep designs, you’ll find the music playing in your head later, you’ll find yourself tapping to its rhythm violence. I’m so glad I bought the soundtrack and can listen to it at work. You’ll even catch the tiny queues in the music for impending turns and thumps coming at you. This is one game where turning your head with your little vehicle won’t be frowned upon, it’s a part of your timing. This is the game that will remind you what its like for a video game to give you cramps like Guitar Hero did. PS4/Xbox controllers were no help for me, I got a thump thumb cramp trying to master these neon tricks. The keyboard wound up suiting me better here. The last game to leave a mark on me like this was Audiosurf. And that’s saying something.

Thumper is available on Steam and the PS4 digital store. I highly recommend you give it a try and let the game’s dark neon world swallow you hole. You’ll break through the other side a changed person.

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