Thomas Was Alone Review: Beautifully Understated, Totally Charming

Thomas was a rectangle. He was also a hero.

Huh. What a weird first line to have.

It seems tough at first for a rectangle to be a hero, or really to have any character at all. In fact, why would anyone name a rectangle Thomas in the first place? Seems a bit strange.

Regardless of issues of naming geometry, Thomas is a hero in Thomas Was Alone, and despite the name, he’s not really alone much at all. And though it might sound a touch bleak and kind of confusing, what with the whole anthropomorphic shapes and all, Thomas Was Alone is a charming puzzle-platformer that you should play, and play soon.

Thomas Was Alone
Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Developer: Mike Bithell
Publisher: Mike Bithell
Released: June 27, 2012
MSRP: $9.99

The story of Thomas Was Alone is actually not about rectangles, although the characters are represented as such. It’s actually about a number of artificial intelligence constructs on their quest to gain sentience and escape the confines of the computer system in which they find themselves. To do that, they must make their way through the side-scrolling, platformy computer world — always generally up, and to the right.

Thomas soon finds himself meeting up with a number of other constructs, each with a different size and color, and each with different attributes. They might not necessarily like each other, but they have to work together to find their way out of each stage, using their different abilities and strengths to help one another. Some can cross caustic water; some can jump farther or higher than others. Using their abilities together by switching between them is the key to success throughout the game, with each puzzle represented by its own level. Each level is bested when all the shapes are touching their designated exit portals at the same time.

The platforming in Thomas Was Alone is generally good or at least decent, specifically because it manages to avoid being frustrating the majority of the time. There’s also no penalty for death other than a quick reset to an earlier spot in a level, but each level is so short and quick that it makes little difference. And anyway, punishment for failure isn’t what Thomas Was Alone is about — it’s about telling a story beautifully through the medium of games.

The story of Thomas Was Alone is really about cooperation, with the rectangles coming to befriend and eventually rely on one another as they face dangers and adventure through the world. The entire plot is delivered by a voice-over narrator, and with the introduction of each new character, the narrative perspective switches to deal with just that character. Thomas Was Alone unfolds like a storybook, with a similar enchanting feel.

It’s remarkable that, in a lot of ways, the characters of Thomas Was Alone are more fully formed and better rounded than those of many triple-A titles. The big driving force in most levels (at least for me), was to push forward to see what would trigger new bits of narrative. Humor abounds, and despite it’s somewhat minimal nature, the story is deep and actually pretty moving.

What’s more, all the elements work together beautifully to tell the story, from the music to the narrative and gameplay. Each pushes a different portion of the experience to create the total. And what results is incredibly engaging.

I found myself completely enamored of Thomas Was Alone from the very first level, thanks to its writing and stellar voice work from Danny Wallace as the narrator. But the gameplay is just as good, as well — ramping up the challenge slowly over time by giving new puzzles to solve and forcing the player to figure out new ways to make the shapes work together. At one point, you’ll have as many as nine characters to deal with all at once, but the puzzles are built in such a way that juggling them all is fairly easy and intuitive.

There are a few points at which one or two puzzles might get a little annoying. In actuality, what’s happening is that the game drags a bit in a few places — some of the puzzles are a little boring and a little pedestrian. In fact, the whole game isn’t, by any means, hugely challenging. But it’s definitely fun, and at any point that isn’t fun, the narrative is so good that you’ll continue to be pulled along. As mentioned above, I felt compelled to finish Thomas Was Alone in one sitting — and I definitely enjoyed that experience.

In total, Thomas Was Alone will last a couple of hours, but it’s the sort of game that may well draw you to play it through in one sitting — it did for me. Once you pick it up, it’ll be hard to put down: a testament to the fact that it’s extremely well-made, and really, just a great, fun experience. The story it tells, and the ways by which it is told, work perfectly in a way that doesn’t happen that often. Thomas Was Alone feels like something special, and it’s well worth playing.

Pros:

  • Very funny, very charming story
  • Handles it’s only mechanic, jumping, with wit and intelligence
  • Low-res graphics actually work really well with the story
  • Great narrative and delivery

Cons:

  • Occasionally irritating later in the game because of keyboard controls
  • Really no replay value to speak of, unless you want to see the story again
  • Puzzles can get a bit boring; never especially challenging
  • Final Score: 90/100

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