REVIEWS

Thumper

Who Says a Rhythm Game Can't be Violent?

Thumper
  • DeveloperDrool
  • Release DateOctober 10, 2016
  • Platform(s)PC, PS4, Switch
  • Release Price$19.99
  • Rating
    3/5

“You are a space beetle.” It seems helpful to clear that up sooner than later. Certainly not a common choice for video game protagonist, but a unique one that also serves to hint at the feel and art of this game. Featuring a space beetle travelling across a three-dimensional music visualization while battling a disembodied mechanical monster head, Drool’s avant-garde release Thumper is seemingly built on originality. From its self-ascribed “rhythm violence” gameplay, to the atmospheric and mind-boggling visuals that beckon to you right in the start screen, this game was undoubtedly intended to transcend conventional gaming. In many ways, Thumper accomplishes that goal; unfortunately, it falls short in other areas, resulting in a game that I really wanted to love, but just couldn’t.

A space beetle flies into tentacles
The space beetle flies down its’ space highway

Drool’s avant-garde release Thumper is seemingly built on originality

At its roots, one would have to call this a rhythm game. Imagine the endless fretboard of Guitar Hero. Now imagine taking psychedelic drugs and seeing that fret board morph into unreal paths and corridors while fractal explosions of color bleed out from behind, and you have a better idea of Thumper. Instead of picking guitar notes, obstacles and turns phase into existence down these paths. Your job as the player is to control your beetle safely through, using a few simple controls that are taught seamlessly over the first few levels.

However, the gameplay reneges on your typical DDR or Guitar Hero mechanics. While those are melody driven, Thumper drops a combination of ambient synth and bellowing drums, bass, and brass. The intention seems to be building a mood instead of  a solid rhythm. Rather than being able to feel the music as you play, predicting the next step is an exercise in visual acuity, concentration, and an unflinching will. The goal here isn’t to make you feel like a rockstar or dance aficionado — it’s to put you on the edge of your seat, sweating and hoping to survive.

Other than that, the game is laid out in a simple, linear, arcade-style progression. Players have a basic level select screen, advancing through nine levels of around thirty segments each. These segments act as checkpoints for when you inevitably blast into space beetle guts, and are interspersed with occasional sub-bosses and a mega boss at the end of each level. Levels differ primarily in the time signature of the music, as well as a recurrence of certain patterns and obstacles. Overall though, different levels lack a unique personality, or even an obvious progression in difficulty; the end result is a jumble of segments that seem thrown together, rather than an intended sequence.

A space beetle spreads it's wings as it goes into a hoop.
Flying through these rings is just one of the avenues for achieving higher ranks.

The lack of differentiation is frustrating, as the core gameplay, music, and visuals are initially compelling and effective at drawing you into the game

The lack of differentiation is frustrating, as the core gameplay, music, and visuals are initially compelling and effective at drawing you into the game. Within the first couple levels I was hooked, imagining how deep and entrancing the future levels would be. However, with a total playtime of around nine hours, and no real changes in music or mechanics, I found that intrigue and excitement melt into apathy the longer I played. There are definitely segments of inspired ingenuity, that take your breath away when you manage to scrape through, but these are far too spaced out. Mostly you’ll be going through the same few variations over and over. In the end it feels like an author who’s paid by the word. This is compounded by the fact that you’re inexplicably unable to replay a specific segment, precluding you from replaying your favorite part without starting from the beginning of a level. Even the bosses don’t add much to the mix, basically just setting up a stricter mode of play rather than creating novel experiences.

The music varies about as much as the gameplay. The instrumentation may be effective at reflecting the developers’ intended mood, but keeping the same sound throughout became repetitive. Even for the more musically talented, I imagine the changes in signature and tempo would be hard to discern (I had to research what even does change). I understand the intention to highlight atmosphere, but because the music takes a hands off approach to guiding your steps, it often falls into the realm of background noise. Obviously, this can be unnerving for a game whose mechanic is music driven.

For those who do find themselves hooked in spite of these concerns, replayability is offered in the form of ratings, leaderboards, and a “new game plus” mechanic. These are standard fare for anyone familiar with DDR or StepMania, but introduce a masochistic flair in being incredibly difficult. I’m no slouch when it comes to twitch and rhythm, and the focus required definitely made me appreciate the leader boards. While I initially aimed for solid ratings during my playthrough, for the reasons stated above, I found myself not bothering as time went on.

The boss of the name, known as Crakhead
The boss of the game grows spikier each level.

Visually, the game stands out — not in terms of graphical horsepower, but pure style and art

Visually, the game stands out — not in terms of graphical horsepower, but pure style and art. Perhaps as indicated by my reservations on the music and gameplay, if you imagine this as more of an interactive music video rather than game, the conceptual foundations become more apparent. Certainly, the art can be hypnotic and reminiscent of classic Windows Media Player visualizations taken into the current generation. While I don’t have a virtual reality rig to play this in, I can only imagine it would be spectacular, and maybe even worth the price tag alone to experience.

Thumper makes a huge initial impression, and is a great effort for the two man team of Drool; they obviously put a lot of love and thought into creating a unique and evocative experience. Unfortunately, the lack of distinct game play and musical score may turn off all but the most devoted completionists and challenge seekers.

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