It takes a great deal of talent to make a game about monochromatic rectangles intriguing and that's just what Mike Bithell accomplished when he created Thomas Was Alone. As a 2D platform puzzler, players will slide and jump their way through a wide variety of levels that will test their skills while one of the most unique and quirky narratives in gaming history unfolds.
Thomas Was Alone is about an artificial intelligence named Thomas who obsessively takes notes as he advances through the game's many levels. He meets a handful of chums who each has their own personality and abilities. Every artificial intelligence character is represented by a simply coloured rectangle and the only representation of their individuality comes in the form of the narrator's ramblings. This is accomplished superbly as simply looking at the game doesn't offer much insight into the depth of the plot and characters yet as the narrator speaks, players' imaginations will run wild. If you really break it down, this could be just a simple game with rectangles and the narrator has lost his marbles and thinks it's about so much more. Either way you look at it, it's a very unique premise that will intrigue even the most cynical of gamers.
Everything appears as simple as you would expect. The levels consist of easily recognizable features such as spikes, water, and buttons. Playfields are outlined in black while backgrounds are simply coloured and subtly populated with shadows, squares, and particles. One aspect of the presentation that will surpass your expectations is the music. Each song adds a layer of wonder to the atmosphere with gradually building ambient soundscapes that echo the simplistic wonderment of every moment. Sound effects are reminiscent of the 2-bit era as characters jump and land with bleeps and bloops. Danny Wallace as the narrator does a fantastic job reciting his quirky lines as he slowly leads players on to reveal the plot along with characters' personalities and motives.
Thomas Was Alone is played by controlling the various characters to slide and jump left and right in order to reach their goals. You can switch between characters by tapping the shoulder buttons and you will need to do this often as characters must help each other reach parts of levels that they cannot reach by their lonesome. Each character has their own traits and abilities such as being able to float on water, double jump, or be used as a trampoline. Every character must reach their individual goal in order to pass each level. Therefore, even if you have almost everyone at their goals, you may have to move a character away to help out left-behind characters. It's a dynamic that is rarely seen yet it works wonderfully.
There are 120 levels in total that are divided into 12 sections. The first eight sections will tell the story of Thomas and his friends, the next two will be about the next generation of artificial intelligence, and the final two act as a prequel to the game's story. The final two sections are also known as Benjamin's Flight which is a downloadable expansion although some newer versions will have it already included. The levels consist of a wide variety of challenges that range from puzzle-intensive to tough platform segments to brisk walks in the park. It's really quite amazing how each level is so different to the previous considering how simplistic this game is. That being said, most levels are incredibly short and can be easily finished in well under a minute.
Considering the diversity of levels in Thomas Was Alone, players will experience highs and lows (thankfully, there are more highs than lows). A few levels require obscure lateral puzzle solving abilities that may frustrate some players as they struggle to understand how to advance. Although levels like this are interesting and add to the diversity, not all players will welcome them with open arms. Benjamin's Flight levels allow players to control Benjamin who can carry a couple of other characters as he flies around with his jet pack. These are great fun as they feel more liberating than the other levels which restrict you to sliding and jumping.
The entire campaign can be completed within a few hours and once you do, you probably won't play it again for quite some time. There are only 20 collectables in the game that can be acquired quickly and easily via the level select menu. Each level has a leaderboard that ranks players according to how quickly they finished it. If you care about replaying levels to climb the leaderboards then you will have a reason to keep playing but I can't imagine many players would want to do so in such a care-free game.
Although it doesn't offer a lengthy experience, Thomas Was Alone is a memorable game that players will celebrate for its quirky characters, heartfelt narrative, and fantastical setting. With it now being released on most major consoles, there's no reason to pass up on this truly unique indie gem.
- + Incredibly imaginative story and characters brilliantly portrayed by the narrator
- + Soundtrack embellishes the wondrous setting
- + Wide variety of levels and challenges
- - Short campaign with not much replay value
- - Some lateral-thinking puzzles can be a bit too obtuse and may cause frustration