If you thought you couldn’t be moved by a story about rectangles, then you’re in for a shock. On sale on the Xbox marketplace this week is Thomas Was Alone, an indie platformer/puzzle game that looks to change the way you feel about quadrilaterals for good.
Thomas Was Alone is the story of a group of computer AIs, represented by squares and rectangles of different colours and sizes, who are attempting to escape the computer mainframe that contains them. The story is told through quotes by computer developers at the beginning of each chapter and a narrator (voiced by Danny Wallace), who gives us insights into how each of the characters feel about the circumstances surrounding them. The game starts off putting you in control of Thomas, a red rectangle, as he explores the levels and tries to reach the portal at the end of each of them. He quickly encounters several other AIs in his travels, and at this point the player has to switch between controlling each of them so that they can work together to complete each level. Each character has a different ability, whether it be a higher jump, a double jump or acting as a springboard. The amount of characters you have control of each level varies, depending on the difficulty of the level and certain plot developments.
The puzzles themselves can become quite challenging (especially when one character’s ability is that he is upside-down), although they generally will take no longer than five minutes to complete. The controls are smooth, which is what you would expect when the only buttons are essentially “move” and “jump”. The heart of Thomas Was Alone, though, is in its storytelling. Wallace’s narration hits all the right marks, in terms of storytelling and comedy. There were moments where I found myself feeling genuinely touched by the inner thoughts of characters who are struggling with their identities and coming to grips with the hopeless situations they seem to be in, then laughing at the flippant narration. If you enjoyed the narrative tone of The Stanley Parable, this might be for you.
The Xbox One version comes with the bonus DLC for the game included, which serves as a prequel to the main storyline. With The game already marked down 33%, bringing the price at just under £7, this is definitely a bargain. However, even with this included, the greatest downfall of Thomas Was Alone is its length. You can complete the main storyline and DLC in just under 5 hours, and once you are done there isn’t really much reason to go back and play again. The game does offer some collectibles, but there are only two in each chapter, bringing the total to 22. Most of these are easily noticeable on your first playthrough, meaning that you will likely only have a few to go back and get. This damages the replay value dramatically, unless you are the kind of gamer who wants to try and get on the online leaderboards for level completion-time. There is also the option to turn on commentary by developer Mike Bithell for each level, which is a cool addition if you’re interested in the mechanics of games design, and he gives his genuine opinion of each level in hindsight, including areas where he felt he may have went wrong.
All in all, Thomas Was Alone offers a unique and engaging experience for anyone who enjoys platforming and puzzles, and tells a genuinely unique and engrossing story. The narration is fantastic, and should keep you entertained even during the less challenging levels. The variation in character design is generally good, other than some being essentially stepping stones rather than having any truly unique abilities themselves. If you’re looking for a quick thrill to distract you on a boring day, then I would recommend this simply for the unique experience and simplistic, yet engaging, gameplay. However, if you would rather spend your money on something more long-term, this short emotional tale of 2D shapes is not what you’re looking for, and will likely gather virtual dust in your game library after one playthrough.