Review: Thomas Was Alone

It's certainly charming, cute, and visually arresting, but at its heart is a puzzle platformer that's just too easy.

It’s received countless gushing praises since its release, so I decided to finally bite the bullet and buy the game, expecting something epiphanic and life changing.

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I already knew it was a puzzle platformer. I already knew it was an expanded version of an online Flash project fleshed out into a full game via the power of crowd-sourcing. I already knew that fellow Brit, Danny Wallace, had won a much coveted BAFTA Game Award for his involvement as narrator. And I knew that the soundtrack is supposed to be something quite lovely. It’s been knocking around for enough time with enough people banging on about it for me not to know all the above.

But to me, this is a game that proves Aristotle wrong: sometimes the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Artwork

For a game that is essentially constructed entirely out of blocks, it’s done a great job of actually making the visuals striking. The use of light and shadows is really effective and gives the flat graphics a real lift. Some of the aesthetics of certain level designs are quite stunning too. One of the levels towards the end, where the entire platform is falling through the air, is more than a little arresting and is one of the few “wow” moments in the game.

Music

David Housden’s score is really quite something. A blend of electronic blips and easy listening, it really elevates the story and mood quite nicely without being overpowering. It’s computerised timbre also suits the game’s overarching plot: several AIs going AWOL after gaining personalities and self-awareness. Sympathetic and quirky, you couldn’t ask for a better video game soundtrack.

Characters

This is the game’s strongest and most enticing element. By turning each quadrangle’s gameplay ability into a personality trait , it gives these literal 2D characters a real sense of dimension and humanity. The use of a third person narrative to explain and expand on their traits, idiosyncracies, thoughts, and fears, is incredibly charming, especially when described through Wallace’s winsome and quintessentially British ramblings. He manages to bring a real, if not slightly twee, charm and charisma to Thomas and his companions, making them come alive better than many AAA charactisations I’ve seen.

Fall guy. Screenshot courtesy of Mike Bithell.

Gameplay

Unfortunately, this is where the game lets itself down. That’s not to say it’s not without its good points. The game is often patted on the back for having a very smooth learning and difficulty curve; and I can’t argue with that. At no point do you feel overwhelmed when introducing a new mechanic into the game, or notice that levels have suddenly gone from being a Cakewalk to being blazingly obtuse. Bithell has done a painstaking job of ensuring an incredibly deft consistency in the game’s challenge progression, and it’s something he should rightfully be congratulated on.

But the problem is, after a point it lacks variety and is just too easy. Once you’re familiar with the characters’ abilities, the game starts to lose its sense of challenge. Where the game’s imagination keeps on going in narrative, style, and artwork, it unfortunately runs out when it comes to the level design.

I never became stuck. For me, puzzle games are supposed to be challenging. I fondly remember the days of seething frustration and constant rage-quitting trying to figure out the fiendish level designs of Lemmings and The Incredible Machine (remember, these were the days before you could just Google a solution). Even modern puzzle platformers like Portal have moments that have the player, more often than not, going, “What the hell do I do!?” And then there’s that moment of elation when you finally figure it out; the penny drops and you have reached inner-peace. You don’t get that at all with Thomas Was Alone.

The only variation in difficulty is the levels becoming more and more fiddly. It’s a challenge of dexterity and skill rather than one of mind and reasoning, and to me it makes for a unfulfilling puzzler.

Overall

It could be that I’m actually being too much of a misanthrope, especially as credit is due to the game having grown from incredibly humble beginnings on the back of its merits. I don’t think anyone, not even myself, would argue that this game isn’t meticulously and brilliantly executed, beautifully designed, and has an incredibly beguiling narrative. At its worst, it’s certainly above average, which is more than can be said about many of Bithall’s contemporaries.

But at its core is a game that simply isn’t hard enough. Whilst its admittedly very easy to get swept up in the game’s overall whimsy, it’s cute and artsy veneer doesn’t distract from the fact that the gameplay is a bit dull.

Thomas Was Alone is available to download via Steam, PlayStation Store, and other clients. For more information about the game, visit www.mikebithellgames.com/thomaswasalone/

6
Review: Thomas Was Alone
It's certainly charming, cute, and visually arresting, but at its heart is a puzzle platformer that's just too easy.

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Author
Destrolyn.Bechgeddig
Bearded British game-bear. Likes his JRPGs accompanied with a G&T. Lives in London, UK. Also writes a lot about theatre and film. *jazz hands*