Thumper provides a stern test. Actually, to be clear, Thumper tries to crush your spirit and beat you, and it often succeeds. If gruelling - but fair - difficulty isn't on your wishlist for a prospective new game purchase, Thumper fundamentally isn't for you. If you do like to be pushed to the edge of your reflexes by games and have a taste for rhythm action in particular, then this Switch eShop release should be at the top of your wishlist.
Developed by former Harmonix employees, let's be clear that this isn't a conventional rhythm game; in fact the developer likes to call it 'rhythm violence'. While a conventional game in the genre typically has you make inputs on the beat or in synchronisation with instruments, Thumper only does this some of the time. On other occasions it messes with your expectations, pushing you off the beat to essentially fight against it. It follows both approaches - sometimes your button presses are right on with the heavy core beat, and other times you're off, as the track twists and turns - having the same effect on your senses in the process.
This game puts you in control of a strange metallic beetle-like creature that is propelled forward on a rail. All around is psychedelic imagery, and lit squares come along on the ground that you bash with a press of the A button. In the opening few stages you also learn that you need to steer around some bends, and as the game ramps up later on it adds new moves and ideas. You bash through barriers or briefly lift up from the surface to hit others, and you eventually even start hopping between lanes. One of the most satisfying moves is lifting up to avoid spikes on the ground, and then timing a ground pound onto a beat that sends a shock wave along the track.
This is split across 9 levels, which in turn are split into lots of quickfire stages, 30 or so in later levels. The stages, in practice, essentially serve as checkpoints as they're normally 30 seconds or less; as you make progress they will take many attempts and a decent amount of time to clear, however. This is the one concession that Thumper makes to its difficulty in that even if you quit the game mid-level you can resume from the stage you left when you go back. That was an essential design decision, though truly talented and dare we say 'hardcore' players can replay any level in Play+, in which you only get one life to get through the whole lot with no deaths. We can just about manage level 1 in the + mode, but are frankly pessimistic of our chances in the following levels.
Thumper is an experience about barely controlled kinetic energy, a rollercoaster with faulty brakes and tracks designed by a maniac. On top of this, it can veer off to destruction at any point - your creature can withstand one hit, obliterating a shield, with a second collision meaning death. If you miss a sharp turn you die, if you fail to push A when going through a barrier you die. In the early reckoning you can look down the 'road', as such, and discern upcoming obstacles and turns, but eventually the speed is higher and you can barely focus on current threats, never mind those in the horizon. Blind turns kill you, as do barriers that arrive in a flash before you can block them.
In later stages the game shows little mercy. The only obstacles we consider overly cruel are occasional lasers (from level 5 on) that strike if you miss a single beat in a particular stretch; after happily fighting through some levels focused on survival and not fretting over the occasional missed beat, this sudden demand for perfection delivered a hefty difficulty spike. Metallic worm-things appear and rush at you, or you have to flick across lanes to dodge sudden short turns.
If anything, boss encounters provide a modicum of relief. The formula stays largely the same - sub-bosses every 10 stages-or-so and then a 'final boss', those flaming heads seen in the trailers and screenshots. These have the interesting spin that you need to put together a sequence of beats to generate a weaponised beat, which then careens off down the track to strike your foe.
It's those moments that remind you, in the madness, that HD Rumble is terrific in this game. It's always there, of course, but in the heat of a twisting stage it's merely another factor in the immersion. Yet when you fire those shots at the boss you feel the orb swoop from left, to right, back to centre and then explode on contact. This game makes good use of the clever rumble possible in the Pro Controller or the Joy-Con (via the Grip or in portable mode).
The HD Rumble plays its part in one of the most engrossing gaming experiences this writer has experienced in some time. Thumper only has a few basic controls, but they're used smartly and - most vitally - are absolutely on the money and precise. Whether playing on the TV or in portable mode we've been sucked into the game's bizarre world, especially so when wearing a pair of headphones. The level of challenge, the soundtrack and the visuals continually draw us in, and we've been aware at times of gripping the controller that bit too tightly. At times our heart was beating almost as hard as the game's percussion line, and early on in the process of this review we genuinely forgot to breath in one segment. Not many games have that effect nowadays.
In terms of presentation, as you've no doubt figured out from our thoughts above Thumper hits its marks. Beautiful visually, it looks fantastic on a TV but also works very well on the Switch tablet's screen. The resolution hit (from 1080p to 720p) is hard to completely ignore in portable mode, but we've been impressed by the graphics in both play setups; the framerate is a smooth 60fps, too. The music, of course, is fundamental to the game. It's intense and shifts between multiple styles - often a hard-hitting techno-rock, sometimes there are suggestions of dubstep, and occasionally the game eases off, giving a few seconds of soaring orchestra-like sounds. It's a fantastic soundtrack, albeit one that holds the same 'rhythm violence' theme for 90% of the time.
Also of note, for you enthusiasts out there, are online leaderboards. Each stage awards you with a rank, and then you get an overall level rank and these go on your record. Scores are automatically uploaded in the normal Play and the tougher Play+ mode, so it's a chance for the best players to show what they can do.
Thumper is a fantastic video game, an extravagant rhythm experience that's also a brutal assault on the senses. It's extremely difficult, painfully so at times, yet we feel the need to persevere, retrying tough stages over and over again. Even when that's done the drive for better ranks remains, simply because the game compels us to play on.
The level of challenge, though, shouldn't be underestimated - even for strong players short sessions may become necessary in the latter third of the game, in particular. The only real flaw of Thumper, in actual fact, is that it offers so little respite and no 'easy' mode for players. Some may scoff at that, saying it's a game designed to be tough, but the downside is that without that optional concession the game will be inaccessible and impenetrable for some players.
That's a pity, as for those up for the challenge it's a wonderful - albeit gruelling - gaming experience.