Now the obstacles come at you like a tsunami of light, each producing a unique sound when overcome. Striking the glowing panels on the track emits a bassy thump. Scything around a corner sounds like a car scraping along a motorway barrier. Rounding a bend while hovering rings out like a whetstone on a blade. It’s these noises, more than the ambient sounds themselves, that produce the nightmare soundscape of Thumper. Mistime your button cues, and the game sounds like a rave that’s been submerged in oil, deep and vague and distant. This is unlikely to be a game where you’ll want to listen to the soundtrack, as so much of it is player-reliant.
Once the controls are covered, Thumper begins adding in more and more challenging obstacles, such as multiple lanes that need to be traversed, or an evil black ring that surrounds the track and zaps the armour off your back if you miss one of your cues. Interspersed within the levels are 'Boss Battles', whereby hitting all the glowing green panels sends a superheated pulse of energy at the nameless geometric entity that writhes at the fair end of the rail. Doing this multiple times obliterates your opponent. This isn’t really a battle because the boss cannot attack back, although there are unique obstacles that appear during these encounters, such as wriggling, tadpole-like creatures that hiss along the rails toward you.
The middle and latter stages of Thumper are furiously challenging. Initially my final scores on a level were peppered with bright yellow 'S' ranks for individual stages. By the halfway point, I considered it a triumph just to reach the end of a stage. There were fleeting moments when I got 'in the zone', so to speak, where Thumper and I were at a harmonious(ish) accord. But far more often I felt barely in control, like I was tumbling down a hillside clutching a bottle of nitro-glycerine, begging for the world to stop spinning and praying to whatever might be listening that I would somehow emerge intact.
As I said earlier, Thumper is not a rhythm game that absorbs you, it’s a rhythm game that entraps you, and as you struggle against its grasp it will attempt to throw you off, chucking in an irregular beat here, a chicane-like sequence there. At times I felt like it was too fiendish, and that its desire to trick the player came at the cost of its own soundscape. There are notes and beats laid like traps that make no musical sense even within the context of the game’s own, twisted logic. They’re there purely to offset you, and they do. But they also offset your experience of the game, and Thumper is already a bucking bronco of a thing; its lights and sounds are that pulse-poundingly intense. It’s a wild ride, and one that not everyone will enjoy.
At the same time, wow. Just wow. What a tremendous experience Thumper is. I’ve played many games that have provoked a strong emotional reaction, but none that have triggered such a powerful physical reaction. It generates that raw, trembling relief and satisfaction of having survived something, in a way that not even the best survival game can achieve. Nevertheless, it’s a game that I feel almost guilty recommending, because doing so seems irresponsible, like advocating swimming with sharks, or going on holiday to Chernobyl.
There is an award at the bottom of this review. I advise you to take it literally. Thumper is undeniably a game that stands out; daunting, mesmerising, and hideously seductive. The monstrous brother of Rez and Audiosurf, Thumper is the Richard III of rhythm games, and it’s just been crowned King.