At this point, a lot of indie game developers try to make mind-bending puzzle games. Portal helped bring back the genre in a huge way with the taunting narrator and level manipulating mechanic. A lot of games fail to even offer a fair challenge, mistaking difficulty or narrow unmarked accuracy fields as compelling game design. Not Thomas Was Alone. Mike Bithell didn't fall into the "harder is better" trap with his rectangular puzzle/platformer game. He creates a captivating environment with very minimalistic graphics that will draw you in with charm and humor.
Thomas is an anomaly in a computer system. He's a randomly generated error shaped like red rectangle. He begins to explore the world that created him, reaching for teleportation outlines that bring him to the next area.
The computer system begins creating other errors with other abilities. John is a tall skinny rectangle that jumps exceptionally high. Claire is a large blue square that can float on the water--a deadly element to the other glitches. Together, the team of seven shapes begin to go further and further in the computer world that made them and wishes to destroy them.
For a game with rainbow-hued rectangles on muted backgrounds, Thomas Was Alone sure has an engaging story and great character development. The seven glitches fall in love, like each other, hate each other, and distrust each other in equal measure.
Claire's not sure about Chris (a squat but strong orange square), but Laura (a flat pink rectangle that act as a trampoline) falls in love with him pretty quickly. Chris hates John for being so upbeat, tall, and jumpy, but John wants nothing more than to earn the respect of Chris and Thomas. And Thomas, the title character, is routinely referenced as the glitch in the artificial intelligence that would be destroyed first if these other characters weren't forced upon him.
Charm and character development are not a substitute for good gameplay and responsive controls in a puzzle/platformer. Thomas Was Alone proudly stands as a well-executed game. The controls are simple. You use up, left, and right (or WAD if you prefer) to move the characters and Q/E (PC/Mac) or shoulder buttons (PS3/Vita) to toggle between characters. A row of colored squares appear on the corner of the screen to let you see the order of the toggle. The game automatically centers on the active character, as well.
The level design is challenging but not so exacting that only one out of hundreds of possibilities of landing a jump is correct. Some levels are just simple platforming, moving the characters from the beginning to the end in a clear path. Others require cooperation between the characters--building staircases for smaller players to climb, floating on Claire's back to pass through water unscathed.
The hardest levels split the characters into odd combinations that force you to rethink the relationships between them. Chris and John are a terrible pair because John can't carry Chris and Chris can't jump on John without at least two layers of platforms, yet they're forced to work together to handle narrow passageways no one else can fit into. Claire and Laura can only jump high enough to get on top of Chris or a low platform, but the two are often paired up to create a high enough trampoline for other characters to use to hit switches. Thomas Was Alone refuses to let you fall into patterns of behavior that rely too heavily on one character combination over another.
While the opening text of each level derides the characters, the cast of Thomas Was Alone is best represented by Claire's introduction to the game. Claire believes her ability to float makes her a superhero. She is proud of the fact that she can do a job no one else in the computer world can. The more she helps characters, the more satisfied she feels with the hand she was dealt.
Each of the seven characters in Thomas Was Alone is a superhero to the other characters. They just don't all realize it. They have phenomenal abilities that allow the entire crew to pass through without detection by the menacing pixel cloud in the sky. The game is a crash course in teamwork and a very smart commentary on learning to believe in yourself. It has the biting wit of Portal which a much more life-affirming message.
Thomas Was Alone is available to download on PC, Mac, PS3, and PS Vita. You can score the PC version through next Sunday (9 June) as part of Humble Indie Bundle 8 with Little Inferno, Awesomenauts, Capsized, and Dear Esther (!!!) for as little as $1. Beat the average price and you also get Hotline Miami and Proteus.
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