Proof that not even a slender budget can hold back a good story!
On first glance it would be easy to dismiss Thomas Was Alone as yet another minimalist entry in the long line of quirky indie puzzlers currently clogging up the internet. It isn’t that we don’t appreciate the resurgence of bedroom coding or anything like that, it’s just that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate the satisfying wheat from the frustrating chaff.
Thankfully within seconds of booting up TWA’s client, the overall quality of this budget £5.99 release shines through, with a plot narrated by the ever likeable English ‘bloke’ Danny Wallace and surprisingly emotive overarching themes featuring simplistic AI routines rebelling against their human creators in an unforeseen ‘event’. This intriguing premise actually serves the basic visual flavour really well, allowing both the narration and the soundtrack to take centre stage in terms of delivering the story.
Narration-led puzzle games are again two-for-a-penny, especially after Portal’s success, but here the formula works especially well as the cybertones of David Housdon give the campaign a surprisingly sorrowful feel. Over the 100 different levels, handily broken up into ten different episodes, each of the blocks you come across are named and given personality traits in order to communicate their different abilities affectively. There’s the long agile rectangle John who can jump really far, the dumpy introvert Chris who really isn’t good at anything, and the outcast Claire who has the curious ability of floating on water. These are just three of a dozen or so differently-abled blocks which, as strange as it sounds, you actually begin to care about and identify with as you carefully navigate them throughout the game’s numerous mazes filled with traps, shifting platforms and byte eating monsters.
The plot actually has its fair share of twists and turns as well, with many metaphysical musings regarding the nature of AI, as well as more traditional themes of vengeance, hero worship, love and self-sacrifice. Not bad for a game about rectangles jumping over things…
We’re doing the gameplay a bit of a disservice actually though, as there’s quite a bit to TWA. Every few levels, players are introduced to a new character which boasts a new ability and a bit more of the plot to encourage you to complete the level quickly to get the next tasty morsel. The levels themselves are usually only a few minutes long and tend to involve positioning several blocks one at a time to allow the smallest rectangle to join their more versatile buddies on the way to the portals, located on the other side of the map.
Controls-wise you can switch between the playable characters whenever you like and you use the directional keys with the space bar to move around and jump. This simple scheme mixed with the straightforward nature of the puzzles means that it’s easy to see when you’re approaching a scenario wrong, minimising the trial and error nature which can make puzzle games sometimes a chore.
There are problems when it comes to movement however, with certain jumps regularly requiring pixel perfect manoeuvring, but for the most part TWA does its best to nullify frustration. Players can restart scenarios whenever they wish instantly and there’s even checkpoints in the longer levels in order for gamers to not have to replay minutes of their lives again for jumping into an anti-grav field when really they should have avoided it.
Another complaint is that switching between different blocks is a bit too simplistic, with players not able to choose specific blocks, but only scroll through all the possible ones in a linear fashion before finding the right one. This can sometimes lead to frustration as most scenarios, especially towards the end of the game require intricate interplay between blocks and their respective ability’s in order to reach the end of the level, and that goal would be much easier if players could select blocks instantly rather than having to scroll through them all each time. Most of the time you’ll only be dealing with three–five different characters, but this phenomenon is still a fiddly frustration.
Control quibbles aside, we don’t have too many complaints. The campaign’s five-hour running time hits the sweet spot, giving enough closure to the game’s themes while allowing the player to wonder for themselves what actually happens to the characters they meet. We’d love to go into the details, especially when it comes to the jokes which arise midway through the game, but it’s perhaps best if we let you discover them for yourself.
Aside from the campaign there isn’t much else to do, no time trial mode or ability to tackle scenarios co-operatively with friends, but for the slender asking price that isn’t a massive surprise.
Thomas Was Alone doesn’t do much to differentiate itself from its peers in gameplay terms alone, but when it comes to setting and story progression it’s in many ways perfect. It’s definitive proof that you don’t need a massive budget, a stellar voicecast or even character models with faces to communicate a compelling story. All a game really needs is well written dialogue and a premise intriguing enough for players to project their imaginations onto the canvas they’ve presented with. In that regard Thomas Was Alone will certainly stick with us for a long time and for a game that’s written principally by a single man, Mike Bithell, that’s a massive achievement.
Thomas Was Alone is currently available for £5.99/$9.99 from Desura.
A puzzler with heart and soul
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