Thomas Was Alone Review!
Mike Bithell shows us that a 2D puzzler that involves moving different coloured blocks to an exit can be fun. But even more amazingly, you end up caring about the blocks thanks to the interwoven witty narrative.
Some of the best games out there are those where you can immerse yourself into the action or narrative and get lost in a world of the developer’s imagination. This medium provides us with a sense of escapism from our everyday lives and places us firmly in a very separate place from reality. Real-life has no 1-up mushrooms or Portal guns after all. Imagine my surprise then when Mike Bithell comes along with Thomas Was Alone – his first solo effort in the industry – where one of the central characters is called Chris. Nothing too unnerving there I hear you say, but when the game goes onto describe this character as being unloved, jealous, not being able to jump very high, and having a crush on a girl named Laura, I did begin to wonder whether this Chris character was an accurate depiction of my younger self in block form. Admittedly Mr Bithell covers his tracks well by depicting me as an orange square, whereas I’d describe my colour as blue, but believe me Mike, I’m onto you.
But putting personal glory aside for one moment, Thomas Was Alone is a puzzle game that involves moving different-shaped blocks around cleverly-designed levels to reach the exit. After a freak accident certain AI in a computer system gain personalities and become personified as coloured blocks. The game begins with the titular Thomas – a small red rectangle that really likes jumping – wondering where he is and why he is all alone. All he can do is move from exit portal to exit portal in the hope that it will lead somewhere good. Luckily for him, along the way he meets other blocks of different shapes and abilities to help him navigate some of the trickier levels. First he meets Chris (a misunderstood block of awesomeness) who is smaller and so can fit into tighter spaces, and further on he will meet other blocks, such as Claire who can float and Laura who other blocks can bounce off of. Yes, quite.
But one of the main reasons you’ll want to play this game through to its end is not just to satisfy your inner completionist. It has an allure that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with games of this type. It has personality. This is delivered through a combination of Bithell’s witty writing and the narration of Danny Wallace – the British comedian and writer – that really brings the game to life. The writing actually gives each block a personality to go with their name. Our hero Thomas for example is a very optimistic lad that finds goodness in everything, whereas Clare has dreams of being a superhero. Oh and no one particularly likes Chris (losers). But anyway, the writing is delivered by Wallace at the start of each level – and at certain points throughout – as the thoughts of a particular block. Throughout the many puzzles these thoughts do genuinely flesh out proper personalities, and you’ll find yourself warming to those little blocks of colour – as well as laughing at loud at some of Bithell’s best lines.
What transpires is a puzzle game with a surprising amount of depth that really does amount to more than the sum of its right-angle parts. This is helped in no small part by the simple and fluid physics on display. A lot of the puzzles will require you to balance blocks on top of each other to allow access to otherwise unreachable areas. This is not hampered by difficult balancing acts or acknowledging the centre of gravity of each block, but by the simple law that a block will only fall down with gravity if there is nothing beneath it, it won’t topple sideways ever.
And the learning curve of this game is something that deserves particular attention. With the introduction of a new block (and therefore new abilities and puzzle opportunities), the game impresses with the way in which it leads you into these new ideas. It starts off small by dipping your toe into the water of using certain abilities and then before you even know what’s happening you’ve gone full throttle into that puzzle type without looking back. There are no points throughout the game where you generally won’t have a clue how to progress, and you also won’t ever notice the step up in difficulty, as it is subtly done. By some of the later puzzles, you’ll be automatically thinking certain ways to overcome the challenges in front of you. And given that there isn’t really a tutorial, this is a real credit to the game’s ability to lead you with it.
This simple Tetris-like mechanic makes the gameplay a lot more fluid, and means you’re thinking more about the puzzles and how to solve them, than you are about anything else – which is a very good thing. To top this off, the act of jumping with your blocks (a Thomas favourite) always feels “right”. You can control jumps midair, or give yourself a run-up for added distance, and it just adds to that feeling of control you definitely need when facing some of the games trickier puzzles.
It’s unusual for a puzzle game’s music to even get mentioned, as most of the time it is fairly functional rather than trying to do anything more. Thomas Was Alone manages to strike a good balance between the soundtrack being enjoyable and of a high standard, without taking any attention away from the puzzling action. David Housden – the game’s composer – manages to create some great ambient music that whilst maintains a high quality, remains understated, and as such the game flourishes.
I often find the best games, the memorable games, the ones you will recommend to a friend, are those that make you smile. And not just because of their charm or humour – both of which Thomas Was Alone has in abundance – but because you are simply pleased to be playing the game. It’s a smile that creeps up on you unawares and leaves you feeling all happy inside. And if there was one thing I was doing a lot whilst playing this game, it was smiling. Puzzles in any game are at their best when you as a player give them a knowing nod of congratulations or wry smile of approval. When your fiancée sitting next to you can’t help but say “Who came up with stuff? It’s brilliant!” you know you’re onto a winner. Yes, the game is a little short, and there replayability is limited – as most puzzle games are – but never in a way you feel short-changed, more so the fact that you wished there wa s more of it. And that can only be a glowing recommendation. If you are a fan of puzzle games – or even if you’re not – Thomas Was Alone is a very good title worth exploring.
Reviewed by Guest Reviewer: ChrisHyde