Despite coming out on the PC last year, Thomas Was Alone is a recent addition to the PS3 and the Vita. On some levels it’s an interesting title that’s certainly worth looking at, but on the whole Thomas Was Alone is a rather flawed game. Simplistic and tiresome design get in the way of a well told story that does a surprisingly good job of attaching a great deal of personality to a bunch of quadrilaterals. However not even the game’s story quite reaches the peaks the player will hope for, leaving Thomas as a somewhat unique feeling game, but not one worthy of a strong recommendation.
The most striking thing about Thomas Was Alone is its aesthetic. Thomas is yet another independent two-dimensional puzzle platformer, but is once again saved from cliché by the diversity available in this genre. To say Thomas looks simple sounds like a criticism, but it is a key part of the visual design. Environments have no detail and are simply areas of black that make up platforming levels; the only colour comes from obstacles in the level or the characters themselves. It’s a very minimalist aesthetic, but it is well executed and results in a rather stylish looking game. Little touches like how dialogue subtitles fit with the look of the game make for a cohesive vision that works in the games favour. The characters themselves mirror this simple beauty, Thomas certainly was alone but over the course of the game he is joined by a cast of colourful companions. Colourful is the correct term to use, as the game’s characters are just coloured shapes that the player can control. They move and jump just like you would expect a protagonist to do in a platformer, but they are still just shapes. Once again it’s not the most complex look, but it all fits together and helps the game to forge an identity of its own.
The look also helps in terms of gameplay; each character is a different colour and shape, making them easily extinguishable. This is a useful trick as each of Thomas’ companions is different in their own special way. The titular Thomas moves is rather average, he can move and jump, other characters have a similar moveset but vary in regard to their ability. Some have special abilities though, like being able to cross water or provide a bouncy surface for their friends. The way this works into gameplay is that the player usually has to control several of the crew in a single level in order to get each shape to the exit. The end goal is always to fit every character you get into a them-sized hole dotted somewhere around the environment. Doing this requires working together… With yourself, and this is where the problem lies and when interest turns to annoyance.
The simplicity of Thomas Was Alone doesn’t just apply to its art; it applies to its gameplay as well. Your diverse crew allows for a lot of gameplay opportunities but they never seem adequately leveraged. The game is a puzzle game but the puzzle themselves are never difficult. In almost all cases you will know exactly what to do reasonably quickly, the answers are obvious but answering is not always hugely enjoyable. Most of your playtime with Thomas will be you going through the motions, you know exactly what you have to do and are just doing it. This is hugely unsatisfying as solving the puzzles is unrewarding and enacting that solution feels like a chore. Thomas isn’t the only one suffering from loneliness here, the same feeling washes over the player as they are forced to play what is ostensibly a cooperative puzzle game by themselves. You only control one character at a time and swapping between them (on the PS3) isn’t as good as it could have been. You can only cycle through, adding extra button presses and making mistakes possible for inattentive players (and believe me the game can bore you into this state).
The problem here is that gameplay in Thomas Was Alone just feels like a hassle. It feels more like carrying out a task or a chore than cracking a brain teaser, and this makes for a unenjoyable and dull experience. The easy difficulty of the puzzles was a clear design choice, as story seems to be the biggest focus but this choice hasn’t achieved its goal. Gameplay doesn’t take a back seat to story but ends up as being an obstacle to it, there’s no satisfaction to be had here and it’s a way in which Thomas Was Alone just doesn’t benefit from being a video game. Puzzles seem a tacked in way to make it interactive, and though they can be neat there is nothing memorable here. Getting from A to B is always rather obvious, but convoluted, the actual journey isn’t fun and there’s no satisfaction in the preparation. If Thomas Was Alone was able to actually test your brain a little then it would be more rewarding, and puzzle solving would feel less of a hassle, as it stands it is just something that is put in the way of the player to slow their progression.
The story in Thomas Was Alone is worth listening to though. It’s told purely through narration and deals with some interesting themes in a whimsical manner. The core conceit is that Thomas and Co are AIs in a computer system (or something like that), but the importance rests on their relationship with each other. Each is troubled by some kind of relatable issue and this makes it a very humanistic tale. Thomas Was Alone’s greatest achievement in fact is how it tells such a human story with such inhuman elements. To its credit I have never seen rectangles with such personality. It’s an endearing story and carries some interest, but it’s not particularly deep or impactful. In the end it doesn’t quite make the effect it perhaps wishes too also, and this is ultimately a shame. There is a lot of promise in this game, and there are many likeable elements but (art design aside) things just don’t come together very well. The sound design however is excellent; the minimalist music is beautifully written and truly emotive. It adds to the feel of the game and matches the mood and the aesthetic perfectly. It does repeat perhaps a bit too much, but it is the standout element in this game.
Thomas Was Alone is not a long game by any means, but its tiresome gameplay makes it outstay its welcome. It’s an endearing product but it just isn’t fun to play, and there isn’t enough to the games other elements to make up for this deficit. Some people may be won over by the charm of Thomas’ adventure, but this isn’t enough to stop the gameplay from grating on you as you have to play a multiplayer scenario by yourself time and time again. It isn’t without merit but it’s hard to recommend.