Claire is special. Despite her plain appearance as a large blue cube, she hides a special gift. For once in a lifetime a hero will arise, one whose powers will set her above those around her. She will stand against the injustice and exist as a symbol of hope in a dark world. For Claire is no ordinary large blue cube. When Claire is immersed in water, her hidden powers will emerge. She becomes, well, buoyant. She can float.
Appearances can be deceiving. Screenshots of Mike Bithell’s Thomas Was Alone portray a simple puzzle platformer, in which you must use a series of individual blocks in conjunction with each-other to reach the exit. But Thomas Was Alone is so much more than the sum of its parts. Where many puzzle games will just give you the tools to play with, Thomas Was Alone gives them life.
Thomas wakes one morning to find himself existing, which has never happened before. What follows is a long journey of exploration as Thomas tries to learn about both himself and the strange world in which he finds himself in. But whilst Thomas may start out alone in the world, his solitary existence does not last for long.
In his pilgrimage of discovery, Thomas soon stumbles across a variety of characters who choose to accompany him. Each new companion brings a new talent to the situation, but they all have their limitations. Whilst Claire may have super powers, the fact that she’s an enormous cube means she’s no good for reaching switches hidden away in small crannies. That’s where Chris comes in; he’s short enough to enter the smallest of holes, but as a bad jumper, he’ll be reliant on Laura’s ability to get him up there. And so on.
Each of the games puzzle blocks is introduced in its own level, and each block is given individuality. They have a name, but more importantly than that, they have thoughts. They have motivations, desires and doubts. Chris may be a simple brown cube, but the irritability and poor attitude described by the games narration come across more powerfully than any fully rendered CGI cutscene. Often you will try and jump Chris up to a ledge he can’t quite reach, and you can just feel his annoyance as Thomas bounds past him.
Holding the story together is an extraordinarily well written narrative thread. Each level provides only a couple of sentences to the ongoing story, delicately probing the thoughts of the characters, but as a result, you’ll find yourself dragged inescapably onwards, desperate to hear the continuing thoughts of Thomas and his friends. The narration forms a strong basis for the action, creating a cohesive journey that continually draws you deeper into the developing friendships of Thomas and co.
Whilst the difficulty curve will never particularly tax you, challenges and new mechanics are introduced often enough to keep you moving onwards without any risk of boredom. Problems become increasingly complex as time goes on, forcing you to think about even simple tasks such as assisting the poorest jumpers to reach a higher platform. Then come the spikes, the rising water levels, the wind. There’s a lot of variety to keep you going, yet no hint of filler in its many levels.
My only complaint with Thomas is that occasionally it can come across as slightly too easy. The difficulty curve is on the gentle side; often your biggest challenge is forming your blocks into the right order before setting off. Yet the simplicity of the challenge does nothing to detract from the experience, after a long day at work I was quite content to trundle through the levels, letting the story of Thomas and his friends wash over me.
Thomas Was Alone tells a tale of developing new friendships, earning trust and learning co-operation. If that wasn’t inspiring enough, it does it all with only rectangles. Soaring high above its simple mechanics and a gradual learning curve, what could have been just a simple flash game has through just a tiny bit of characterisation ascended to one of my favourite games of the year.
Don’t worry Thomas, you’ll never be alone again.
Verdict: Head Shot
Platforms Available – PC
Platform Reviewed – PC
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