Thomas Was Alone has had a long life. Originally a flash game released in 2010 by Mike Bithell, it eventually saw a full release on PC and Mac in July 2012. Now with the aid of Bossa and Curve Studios, Bithell’s puzzle-platformer has made its way onto the PlayStation Network for your PS3 or Vita. Thomas Was Alone attempts to change up the usual puzzle-platformer, allowing players to control multiple different quadrilateral shapes at once, each with their own properties. The final product is a charming, although somewhat shallow experience.
Thomas Was Alone does have a premise, albeit a pretty basic one. Occasional snippets of text explain what is happening, but the plot is never explained fully. The various shapes you control throughout are described as Artificial Intelligence routines who have gained sentience. Each now has its own unique personality, which is presented through accute narration. While avoiding a more concrete story, Thomas Was Alone chooses to have characters slip in and out of the plot in service of the current puzzle. But even without a complex narrative, it keeps a constant comedic-yet-slightly-sad tone. There’s a genuine sense of hopelessness to most of the personalities portrayed, and individual character flaws in each are taken just far enough for some subtle absurd humor.
The game introduces new mechanics continually by way of the different playable shapes. Different “characters” bring with them the ability to float on water, act as a springboard, double-jump, etc. Within each level, the objective is to find each shape’s corresponding goal. No matter the shape, platforming is satisfying and responsive. Switching between the cast of characters can be a chore with larger groups, but at least the Vita version works around this with its touchscreen.
What makes Thomas Was Alone more than just a bunch of puzzles layered on top of each other is the required cooperation. At first it’s easy to rush ahead, trying to reach each individual goal one at a time, but eventually the effort must be combined. To encourage this, shapes have just as many negative attributes as positive. Some can barely jump and need to climb atop their fellow AIs, while others will find their size a constant burden. This variability, especially when switching between six or seven shapes at once, keeps each new puzzle fresh. Gushing aside, Thomas Was Alone does suffer from a few problems.
New mechanics are often not given enough time to breath. Each new chapter brings with it a very mild learning curve, allowing the player slowly to grasp the new ideas presented. Too often, though, just as a new element is fully realized, Thomas will jump into the next chapter, leaving previous discoveries behind. Even late-game puzzles are often extremely obvious after a few moments, with the only restriction being your own platforming skill. Thomas Was Alone casts a wide net when it comes to puzzle mechanics, I just wish it was willing to dig deeper into them. Boredom, however, rarely comes into play as the game is constantly entertaining on other fronts.
Minimalist visuals are used quite effectively in Thomas Was Alone, with levels often consisting of nothing more than a monochromatic background and solid black platforms. As you progress through each level, you’ll notice striking details as the background changes according to your movements. Slight alterations in lighting cause the background to swim between shades as the rag-tag team of shapes stumbles over each other toward their goals. Little visual accents begin to float in the background as well, helping to create an extremely basic, yet alien world.
This all melds together with an extremely chill soundtrack. Electronic highlights accompany slow, melancholic tracks, which serve to amplify the overall tone. There’s a sad playfulness to it all, blending perfectly with the clever narration and visual style. Thomas Was Alone may not provide the most intricate puzzle-platforming experience ever, but playing it is downright pleasant.
Thomas Was Alone does more with an extremely minimal toolset than many big-budget games could hope to do. Brief, effective narration combines with beautifully simple gameplay and visuals to create a great game. It’s just a shame that so many mechanics are left behind without being given enough time to shine.