One of the advantages to being someone who writes reviews for fun and thought over someone who writes game reviews for a living is I can, if I want, step back and take days or even weeks after playing a game to think about it.
Another advantage is I don’t actually have to finish it.
Thomas was alone is a game about a gang of quadrilaterals of varying shapes that are trapped in a mysterious world and tasked only with traversing from point a to point b through each level by any means necessary. The reason this world exists, or indeed why it appears custom-built to their own strengths and weaknesses (spoiler alert: it’s because they’re in a videogame! :O) is a mystery.
The puzzle portion of the game, if you can call it that, is in how these shapes must work together to solve traversal problems. The large blue cube, for example, can’t jump very high, but she can float on the surface of the mysterious bubbly liquid that fills bits of some levels that all other cubes find instantly lethal. The tiny orange square can’t jump high either, but he can fit in tight spaces, and so on.
The yellow one, however, has a rather different talent. He’s a narcissist.
Each member of this little band, in fact, has their own personality quirk. But they don’t voice their feelings directly; instead, the whole soap-opera-like plot of naiveté, pride and love is cheerfully narrated Danny Wallace. If you can’t picture what that would sound like, let me demonstrate:
Now that we’ve got that rather horrifyingly bad impersonation out of the way…
The absolutely charming narration and likable “characters” are cute, but completely 2 dimensional (pun definitely intended; no really, I totally was planning that from the beginning!). This is the sum total of one character’s story arc (and pretty much the richest of the bunch): Chris was a bit on the cranky side until he met this lovely blue box and in order to impress her, he started being less cranky.
While the writing was charming enough to hold the thin story together for most of the game (and I will give it this, I was wearing a pleased grin for the first 3rd of the game), it absolutely failed to prop up the atrocious puzzles.
Adam Smith of Rock Paper Shotgun rather excellently made this observation about puzzle games in general:
As with many puzzle games of this sort, the biggest irritation for me is the point when I figure out how to get every piece into the right place but wish I could just make them be there already. I like the process of figuring out the level a damn sight more than the process of actually completing it and most of Thomas Was Alone is figuring out rather than timing or platforming.
This is what Thomas Was Alone suffers from from the very first level.
I’ve been playing Antichamber recently, and while I’m still stumped on some of the more difficult “puzzles” (they seem to transcend puzzles, actually) I never feel completely frustrated because a) I can try any other puzzle I’ve reached if I get stuck on a certain one coughbraidcough, and b) the puzzles I have solved weren’t absolute rubbish. I got frustrated with Thomas Was Alone not because it’s puzzles were to difficult, but because they really aren’t puzzles at all. It’s more like playing Super Mario Bros., except Mario can’t jump worth a hill of beans and at any given point there are 3-6 Marios on screen, each of them with different controls and all of them unable to jump at all if there’s anyone else on them. And you’re doing all this in a COD-style tiny corridor.
Some of the puzzles I’m sure were more clever than I give them credit for, but I didn’t get a chance to find out because I was too busy exploiting a jump physics glitch because I wanted to hear the next bit of dialogue. It eventually became a cycle of play some rotten puzzles, listen to some charming narration that grows less and less worth it every level, repeat. I started to realize I wasn’t having fun when I discovered the reason I had died for the 20th time on a timed jumping puzzle was that there was literally no puzzle to it at all. You just jump across, take control of the other character, jump them across, repeat. I stopped hurting myself and uninstalled the game when a level required I do the same bland platforming challenge I had done last level twice, only one had gravity flipped.
In the end, I expect I made it about 3 quarters of the way through the game. I wish I’d seen the ending; I’m sure it was lovely and cute, like the rest of the game. Maybe I’ll watch a walkthrough on the tube sometime. But the puzzles were so rotten and the actual story so basic and flat (I didn’t plan that one either, I swear!) that it ceased to be worth it.
You may enjoy it. If you pick it up on a Steam sale as I did, you’ll only pay a few bucks for it. It has lovely visuals, charming narration, and a story that, while dressed up nicely with cheerful writing, in 3 years no one will care about or remember. It might be a nice little game if the actual game part weren’t on the same level as a mediocre flash game.