The Many Uses of a Quadrilateral – Thomas Was Alone Review
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3
Some people won’t believe you if you tell them this, but you don’t always need state-of-the-art visuals and impressive technology under the hood to create a great game. Sometimes all you need is solid gameplay, an intriguing story, a twist on some established gameplay tropes, and you have yourself a winner. Thomas Was Alone by Mike Bithell is a prime example of this, showing how a number of simple quadrilaterals voiced by an invisible narrator can have you just as hooked on a game without bombastic explosions and jaw-dropping graphics.
Thomas Was Alone takes on the guise of a 2D platformer, and starts players off as the titular character Thomas who is, surprise, surprise, alone. He doesn’t stay this way for long though, as he is soon joined by a number of companions, all of whom are shapes with four sides, and all of whom have their own particular ability that will help Thomas on his journey. Where this journey is heading isn’t made crystal clear, as much of the game is open to interpretation, but the general gist is that Thomas is seeking to grant sentience to a number of AI constructs, for reasons unknown. To do this, Thomas and his companions have to overcome 100 different levels, each taking a matter of minutes, and most provide their own particular challenge that needs to be overcome in order to progress.
Most of these challenges are based around the abilities of the most recent character to join your party, and these characters usually join at the start of each chapter. Throughout each chapter, the story is often told from the perspective of your newest recruit, and most of them have interesting reasons as to why they’ve decided to help Thomas, or why they’ve at least decided to tag along with his quest for the time being. There’s John, who’s shaped like a rectangle, and can jump the highest out of the companions; Claire, who can float in water, and is often used as a form of boat to get to otherwise inaccessible areas; and Sarah, who has the ability to double-jump. Each of these abilities is well balanced throughout the game, and you never need to rely on one too much, but you also never feel as if one particular character is being neglected, as they are all useful and critical in their own particular way.
What you’ll also find throughout the duration of Thomas Was Alone is that you’ll come to care about these seemingly one-dimensional characters more than you would with characters in some high-budget titles. This is partly down to the writing, but mainly due to the fantastic narrative delivery of Danny Wallace, who some of you may recognise as the voice of Shaun Hastings from the Assassin’s Creed series. Wallace’s deadpan delivery and sometimes snarky comments do a great job of imbuing these faceless shapes with lives and motivations of their own. Because of this, it’s very hard not to start caring deeply about Thomas’ and the other characters’ plights.
The narration is joined by some excellent musical work from composer David Housden, which, whilst not necessarily catchy or memorable, fits the game itself perfectly. Most of the tracks are fairly mellow electronica, but they never seem to get too repetitive or overplayed. Visually, Thomas Was Alone is a rather simple affair, with shapes moving against a solid black background, but the tilting of particular levels adds a nice bit of flair from what would otherwise be a rather flat and boring scenario. The only issue with some of the visuals is in the subtitles. Depending on the position of the camera, the words themselves shift to ensure they are visible for the duration of the soundbite. It’s an admirable attempt at removing subtitles from being plastered above everything in the center of the screen, but the constant rearranging of the words reminded me of trying to read books whilst drunk.
Much of the gameplay in Thomas Was Alone is platforming with a smattering of puzzles, although most of the puzzles tend to be fiddly more than brain-bending. This is because you usually need to line up each character in a particular order so that they can all access their individually shaped portals to the next level. Switching between characters is pretty easy, as you use L1 and R1, but when you have a number of characters onscreen at once (with a maximum of seven), it can be time-consuming working your way through all of them, just to access the one that you want.
Whilst the difficulty does increase the further into the game you venture, you’ll often find that difficulty spikes come in waves towards the end of each chapter, rather than a smooth curve through the entire course of the game. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that you’ll spend 5-10 minutes struggling your way through one level, only to complete the next three or four in thirty seconds each.
Although Thomas Was Alone does boast 100 levels, most of these are fairly short, and the entire game can be experienced in 4-5 hours. This is actually a pretty fair length for this title, as there doesn’t feel like a lot of padding or unnecessary exposition, and a running length of a longer duration would probably force the game to overstay its welcome. Thankfully, the loading times between each level is pretty short, and even getting from the main menu into the game itself takes a matter of seconds.
Thomas Was Alone does feature cross-play between the PS3 and the PSVita, although for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to get it working, and looking at a few message boards online, it isn’t just me that’s having this particular issue. The game runs in a practically identical manner on both consoles – it’s just a shame that at the time of writing you can’t continue your game on both consoles.
Thomas Was Alone is an excellent example of why multi-million dollar budgets aren’t, and shouldn’t be, the be all and end all of videogame developing. If this is the kind of indie title that Sony is hoping to bring to the PlayStation Network with its new drive towards indie gaming, then players have a lot to look forward to. On first glance, Thomas Was Alone is a simple platformer that would perhaps look dated on the SNES, let alone modern-day consoles. In reality, it’s a definite contender for PSN game of the year, and should be recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in videogames, as it shows off the best of what gaming can be, without even a hint of violence or ‘mature themes’.
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