Thomas Was Alone.
Wow. A weird first line to write. But then again, Thomas Was Alone is a bit of a strange game. A very endearing one, too. The tale of a group of rectangles setting out to learn more about the strange world they find themselves in is interesting and unique.
Uniqueness does not always warrant greatness, as has been demonstrated in the video gaming universe multiple times. When trying new game concepts, developers often fail at capitalizing on the strengths of their newly found gaming style or glaring weaknesses have not been overlooked. Thomas Was Alone toys with the existing premise of puzzle platforming and adding an emotional to a game filled with quadrilaterals. The latter it does very well. The story is told through personal narration, by an excellent narrator with a pleasant and empathic tone of voice. Being simple and mono-coloured, Thomas and his friends do not sport emotion-conveying appearances. The narrator does an excellent job of expressing the feelings of the little blocks. Each character is unique and has his own feelings, and the perspective is often switched to introduce a new character. There’s Thomas, the protagonist (duh). There’s also Chris, who at first despises Thomas because he is slimmer and can jump higher than him. I must not forget Claire, a huge blue square who starts off with little self confidence but soon starts to regard herself as a super hero as she is the only one capable of floating in dangerous waters. The narratives of all these characters are brilliantly weaved together in a cute story that tells of friendship and cooperation. It reminds me of the novel and its movie adaptation, Flatland. It carries the same atmosphere of awe and being scared of the world around you because you realize you don’t fully understand it.
I almost forgot about the gameplay there. I feel the unique storytelling is Thomas’s prime advantage, but its platforming isn’t bad either. Each level, it is your goal to place each character in his own little portal. You must jump and fall your way to these portals, and once all the characters are in the right spot, you’ll be transported to the next level. The controls are very accurate, and due to the simple graphical style of the game, platforms are cut out very clearly, making it easy to coordinate your jumping. The timing and range (and the little retro sound the blocks make when jumping) are satisfying and rightly chosen. The theme of teamwork again shows up in this aspect of Thomas: oftentimes, the player has to use the different capabilities of the characters to get a character who cannot jump very high to a certain platform. There are three characters with a different set of skills; one who experiences gravity just a bit different then we do, the aforementioned giant Claire, and Laura, who can let other characters bounce off her. The different levels are fun to play and great timewasters, as they’re usually very short. And that’s also the game’s main drawback: it has very little to offer (though it is also priced ‘competitively’). I think I’ve finished the game in around two or three hours, and other than trophies, there’s little to no replay value. The game also does not offer much of a challenge; some levels are harder than others, but the difficulty does not ramp up evenly and it’s usually a walk in the park.
The game’s sound design is amazing. Subtle, atmospheric music incorporating many strings and pianos really make you feel that the world Thomas and his friends live in his a strange one. It also makes their quest to get out of it feel important, and urgent. The melancholic feel invoked by the constant background tingling of the strings and the slowly struck piano tones excellently support the narrative and the emotion put forward in the game. Sometimes it can fade into each other a little bit, and I recommend using good quality headphones because it can be hard to distinguish the subtle musical differences from each other while listening through the Vita’s speakers.
There’s not really a lot to say about the graphical style. You play as quadrilaterals with different sizes and colours, and the world has a single background colour (varying per level, of course) and black obstacle blocks. Besides that, there is an occasional evil pixel cloud and the shadows of the blocks. That’s it. I would have liked a bit more variation and rippling in the background (a la Sound Shapes) but I do understand the designers choice to keep everything as simple as possible, and it does the job it’s intended to do.
All in all, Thomas Was Alone is a fun puzzle platformer heavily reliant on atmosphere. It has great music and simple, yet fitting graphics, but it misses challenge and longevity in its gameplay. It is worth to play due to its great creativity in telling a story; giving quadrilaterals feelings is a feat worth of applause.