As part of PSXE's continued focus on "games we shouldn't have missed," here's a review of a particularly good indie title. 🙂
So many video games have become ultra-realistic. We can see the individual pores on a person’s face; expressions are amazingly authentic, and movement animation is physically accurate. We’ve come so far. …and yet, here I am, playing a game that simply uses differently shaped boxes as characters. One could argue that such a concept is merely lazy or unimaginative but in fact, it’s how those “characters” move and interact with one another that sets Thomas Was Alone apart. This puzzle/platformer is an understated, subdued, yet very addictive gem.
As you might expect, it doesn’t require a whole lot of graphical power to produce a block. Nor does it require an immense amount of development skill to create a world populated with a series of blocks and other angular shapes. Okay, so it’s not about meticulous, highly realistic design; rather, it’s about the overall product. As this is a true puzzle/platformer, how each level is constructed is paramount to the experience. This is where Mike Bithell shines, because each level is lovingly – albeit sparingly – crafted with the express purpose of providing the player with a simple yet very real challenge.
You’d think the sound adopts the same minimalist motif and while that’s true to some extent (crackling sound effects aren’t part of the presentation, obviously), there’s a pleasant surprise: The narration. Yes, there’s a narration that accompanies the adventures of these stalwart blocks, and it’s expertly delivered. It really puts the story at the forefront of the quest, and it helps to drive the experience forward. There’s also a quality soundtrack that accompanies and complements the contemplative action, so the audio is a definite highlight. Understatement is key in low-budget indie games; you just have to be sure it’s intentional and not just the absence of high-level quality.
Thomas is a block. He appears to be stranded in a strange world with other blocks. Each block has a specific skill-set; some are better at jumping while others have their own unique abilities. The cool part is that due to the aforementioned narrative, each block also has a distinct personality, so you almost feel as if you’re controlling fully developed characters. In truth, you kinda are…just because they’re faceless doesn’t mean they’re not appealing, and you start to root for Chris right from the start. He’s not endowed with the same acrobatic abilities as Thomas and for that, you immediately see him as a determined underdog. It’s another example of the developer’s successful attempt to make blocks – and a blocky environment – emotionally appealing.
Technically, Thomas Was Alone is a platformer with a heavy puzzle element. Each block can has a role to play, and your goal is for each block to reach his or her own exit in any given level. Each character must help the other; sometimes, it’s as simple as building a makeshift bridge while other times, you must come up with ingenious solutions to challenging environmental puzzles. We enjoy the increasing challenge because we’re so absorbed in conquering each level and learning more about each little block. The block personas really are a big part of the experience, and you’ll want to accompany them to the finish line.
You will encounter a variety of hazards in your travels and due to the limited capability of each block, you have to approach each level with caution. You can switch back and forth between each character with the click of a button (the right or left trigger on the PlayStation Vita, for example), and you have to figure out a way to reach that exit. Many times, especially in the later levels, this is a multi-step process that involves a fair amount of trial-and-error. This might annoy some of the less patient gamers out there, but they also might get sucked into the addictive nature of the gameplay.
The only problem is that as everything is so seamless and involving and there’s not much in the way of urgency, the challenge feels a little light. Yeah, I mentioned the increasingly difficult levels, and later areas will force you to think a bit more, but you probably won’t be stymied. Unfortunately, the challenge lies more in the platforming aspects than the puzzle-solving; if I had my way, it’d be the reverse. Even so, while playing, I’m continually impressed by the game’s general design, which is engaging and downright ingenious. It keeps us playing, keeps us thinking (to a certain point, anyway), and keeps us emotionally invested in the strange existences of those little blocks.
I suppose more could’ve been done to develop the ideas and concepts behind each level, but I think Bithell wanted to put an emphasis on streamlined, intriguing accessibility. I love that he didn’t make the mistake of implementing a time limit, which would’ve wrecked the experience for me. It might’ve added that sense of urgency – which is admittedly lacking – but we’d lose that freewheeling, lighthearted atmosphere. That’s precisely what keeps us coming back for more, in addition to the catchy gameplay that grabs you from the outset and simply refuses to let go.
Games like this are few and far between. Most of them either try too hard or attempt to use low resources as a springboard; i.e., “See what I can do with very little money all by myself.” Here, we get a game that’s proud of being a smaller, independent title, manages to make the epitome of a faceless character (a featureless block) a sympathetic hero, and keeps us rooted in our chair. That’s no easy feat. And despite the drawbacks, you tend to forget all about them as you continue to press forward. All you want to do is conquer the next level and that’s a good feeling.
Thomas Was Alone is a cute yet ambitious title that features simple controls and a simple gameplay mechanic. It builds upon that simplicity by infusing the game with a fair amount of surprising personality, and using cooperative elements to bolster the adventure’s dynamic appeal. If you missed out last year (as I did), now’s the time to give it a try. For the record, this was reviewed on the PlayStation Vita and the controls work perfectly in a portable capacity. It’s also great to enjoy when out and about, because it’s just so easy to pick up and play.
The Good: Understated atmosphere with a lot of personality. Accessible, spot-on control. Fantastic co-op elements that force your blocks to work together. Great overall design. Engaging and addictive throughout.
The Bad: Might be a little too easy/streamlined. Some concepts could’ve been developed more.
The Ugly: “Blocks aren’t ugly when they’re supposed to be blocks.”