Image courtesy of sweaty , my heart is pounding, and the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up. These reactions are usually reserved for a piece of horror, not a music rhythm game. But there's a reason Thumper's developers have described it as "rhythm violence." Thumper is sensory overload, an experience ripped from the pages of H.P Lovecraft and the trippy, unnerving visuals of David Argento's Suspiria, all driven by a thundering soundtrack.
The best word to describe Thumper? Intense.
Thumper takes place on a single track that winds only left or right, as the player, represented by a shiny beetle, zips along at breakneck speeds. In combination with a single button, you hold left or right to lean into turns, forward to leap over objects, and crash through whatever's in your way. Timing these changes correctly increases your score, missing them chips away at your health. It only takes a few miscues before death comes knocking. Markers on the track, often timed to the music, are necessary to build up score multipliers, refill your health, and, in some cases, attack bosses—yes, bosses—with charged shots.
It's difficult to convey the experience of playing Thumper in words. You have to sense it:
The core mechanics are simple, but the experience is complex. You can't disconnect the game's atmosphere from gameplay; they work in lockstep to generate tension. You know how a good shooter makes the act of pulling a trigger feel weighty? Thumper achieves something similar as you speed through its world. The soundtrack isn't just loud, everything is loud. The game feels loud. When you make a turn, your beetle slams into the siding, as if you could fall off the track at any moment. Crashing through gates makes your controller go thump-thump-thump as the music goes thump-thump-thump as well.
When you make a mistake, a meter doesn't go down; a cacophony of noise, both seen and heard, sears through your speakers like a jackhammer. It's controlled chaos, one that makes every moment you stay alive feel significant. The problem, of course, is that the game moves so fast that if you stop to appreciate what you've done, it's game over. Even when you finish a stage, the game doesn't let up; it moves right onto the next one. (Thumper features worlds that are broken down into interconnected, nonstop stages.) I can't remember the last time I've had to pause a game to catch my breath, but in Thumper, that's often necessary to maintain your composure.
You've probably seen Thumper mentioned alongside PSVR, and while Thumper is part of Sony's virtual reality launch lineup, it's both totally playable on a PlayStation 4 without strapping on a headset and also available on PC. (The developers have said news is coming "soon" regarding support for PC VR devices.) The ideal conditions for playing Thumper are in the dark, headphones cranked up, and with a massive screen—VR just enhances that.
Though Thumper is technically a score-based game, I've found myself wishing there was a way to turn that metric off—survival is often satisfying enough. But I'm already anxious about what lies ahead. (The titular line from Clive Barker's Hellraiser—"We have such sights to show you "—feels appropriate, as would the sudden appearance of a floating Lemarchand box in the game.) I've completed two of Thumper's nine worlds, and it's hard to fathom what tricks might be in store in the remaining seven. I needed a break from the game after an hour of play; it's hard to imagine what Thumper will throw at me as I dig deeper. Wish me luck.