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PAX East Preview: Thumper

March 26, 2015 | | Comment? Share thison Facebook PAX East Preview: Thumperon Twitter

Every PAX East features a wide array of companies and developers showing off their upcoming or recently released games. Here at Original Sound Version, we like to highlight some of the music related games that we come across during the event. These often end up being rhythm games, but this can also include other game genres where music is a vital element. A good example of this would be the FRACT OSC game that we previewed at last year’s PAX East. This year we will be highlighting two upcoming games that were on display at the PAX East Expo floor.

Our first preview is an action rhythm game called Thumper. This was one of the many titles featured at the PAX East Indie Megabooth. The game is currently being developed by Marc Flury and Brian Gibson, who have both worked on rhythm game titles at Harmonix. Flury acts as the lead programmer, with Gibson providing his music and art talents for the look and sound of the game.

The developers describe Thumper as a rhythm violence game, which I have to admit is an accurate description. In Thumper you control a space beetle that is moving at high speed along a narrow track in a cyberpunk style world. The art style is reminiscent of the neon color schemes of sci-fi worlds like Tron, but Thumper also adopts an unsettling horror aesthetic. There are lots of dark reds and eerie purples used in much of the game environment. The design of the objects around the track also have this unnatural metallic and demonic look. Lots of bio-metallic insect forms and dark neon corridors. The music also evokes a dark and foreboding atmosphere to match. The music contains plenty of electronic and percussive elements help build up a sense of dread and doom as you play.

The gameplay is fairly straight forward. As you race along the track, you will encounter obstacles. Each of these obstacles requires a specific time perfect response from the player to pass through and avoid taking damage. In the opening of the demo, the game guides you through the first sets of these obstacles. One of the earliest of these is a white square on the track which requires you to hit the A button in time with the music. Doing this correctly will result in a drum hit timed to the music. Another obstacle is a sharp turn in the track, going either left or right. To pass through unscathed, the player needs to hold down the A button as they go into the turn and hold the press the appropriate direction at just the right moment. Once again this is timed directly to the music and the turns have their own metallic percussive hit associated with a successful input.

You’ll end up learning a handful of these commands as you go through the level. As each new obstacle is introduced, a new element of the music is added. One even requires you to not push down any buttons, often mischievously placed right before or after an obstacle that will require one. You also start to see these obstacles lined up in quick succession, with more complex patterns emerging as you progress through the level. This also raises to potential for you to take damage if you miss a beat. The game is somewhat forgiving in this regard. You can take a handful of hits and there are even opportunities to receive repairs to the damage. There’s enough room for a few errors, but one mistake too many results in a crash. With this build up of difficulty and intensity of the level, the music also builds up and becomes more complex, adding to the game’s tension and suspense.

Part of what makes Thumper so engaging and thrilling is the speed. It doesn’t feel like you’re going too fast in the opening tutorial, with only a few obstacles to deal with. But as the game goes on it become apparent that your beetle avatar is racing at incredible breakneck speeds. This really becomes noticable when you have to make a quick series of tight turns. In my playthrough I started to see sets of these turns in quick succession, which I had to prepare for to avoid crashing, all while paying attention to the music to make sure I could stay on the beat. It makes for some exciting gameplay and requires quick reflexes and a good sense of musical timing to react to everything the game throws at you.

After learning three or four of these commands, each with their own unique music elements, and making it through a handful of increasingly difficult patterns, you are greeted by an end of level boss. In these scenarios you must successfully respond to a series of complex obstacle patterns, based on the set of responses you have just learned in the level. You need to hit every element of a pattern perfectly in order to move on. Succeed in navigating a complete pattern and an energy wave is sent towards the boss creature, damaging it. If you can manage to make it through all the obstacles and patterns, you will defeat the boss. Again all of this is done with a soundtrack that syncs perfectly and adapts to your successes and failures during the battle.

I was surprised to learn that the levels of this game and their patterns are not randomly generated in any way. I suppose it’s become an expectation to see roguelike forms of gameplay adopted by a lot of games, especially in indie titles. However, the developers of Thumper wanted to create a specific experience for the players, both in terms of the music and the gameplay. This design choice has also allowed them to have more control on the difficulty curve of the obstacle/music patterns. Players will not have to worry about failing on a particular run, just because the game generated a ridiculous pattern that you couldn’t prepare for.

After having some hands on time with Thumper, I have to say I’m really looking forward to seeing and playing the finished product. The visual and audio design is great, the gameplay is fast paced and challenging, and it’s a particularly unique experience that I haven’t found in any other rhythm games. The release date and the specific platforms for the release have yet to be determined. The developers stated that they want to wait until they are sure that the game will be ready. Definitely keep this game on your radar. It’s a fascinating and unique experience that fans of twitch/action gameplay and electronic music will certainly find enjoyable. You can find more information on Thumper on the game developer’s home  page.

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