In the last few years, Sony has been picking up games from small teams working on creative and well executed projects. The most recent game to get scooped up this way by Sony is PC Platformer Thomas Was Alone, which should be considered up there with the best games available on Sony’s current platforms, downloadable or otherwise. Where Thomas Was Alone truly shines is when you take a look at the package as a whole and the way that its music, narrative, characterisation and gameplay all come together to turn a good platformer into a tremendous experience. Creator Mike Bithell managed to make me care incredibly deeply about the fate of a group of faceless, voiceless, coloured quadrilaterals.

At first glance, it’s tough to see what makes Thomas was Alone special. It’s a simple platformer where blocks with differing properties try to reach a level’s exit. Sure its jump mechanics are really solid, and the block’s properties make for some interesting late-game puzzles.

The story laid out at the start of the game is that you’re following the story of the emergence of the first truly self aware AI’s. The game presents the evolution of beings who simply came to exist, fully aware, and knowing nothing besides their own existence. We see them interact and grow as friends on their journey to find meaning and purpose in the world around them.

Commentary

Each rectangle has their own distinct personality, voiced by Danny Wallace’s narration, which is closely tied to the way the character handles in gameplay. The tiny, yellow square Chris has something akin to Napoleon complex due to his lacking height and inability to jump as well as Thomas. Claire on the other hand, a much larger rectangle who views her ability to swim as a Super Power, takes it upon herself to overcome her personal nemesis and save the Super Power-less rectangles around her. Every puzzle I solved left me feeling more certain of the characters and their motivations; even for the characters not being narrated at that time, because needing Thomas’ help to climb a ledge as Chris several times in a level taught me more about the pair’s relationship than words ever could.

The soundtrack is filled with ambient music that’s always perfectly tied to the situation and environment. It might be low and widespread, slowly giving subtle reminders of how alone your character is and how huge a task they face. It could just as easily be rising in pace and pushing you forward. It’s crafted in a way that if you play through the game in a single sitting, like I did for review, huge chunks could be assumed to be a single track just gently working its way slowly up and down with the narrative arc because of how the soundtrack subtly changes.

Thomas Was Alone doesn’t provide a huge deal of challenge to seasoned gamers for the bulk of the campaign. Some puzzles require figuring out a new use for a character, but much of the gameplay consists of using abilities you already understand, just in slightly different combinations. It takes a slow and steady approach to teaching you how the characters work, and never pressures you into understanding a mechanic too quickly. While this didn’t bother me, as I was heavily invested in the story being told, Thomas was Alone’s opening levels may not have enough challenge to be engaging for some seasoned gamers.

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The thing is, this difficulty curve to the opening levels doesn’t feel to me like it was designed with seasoned gamers in mind. It feels like it was designed to be accessible to as wide a range of players as possible, and in that regard Thomas Was Alone succeeds massively. My girlfriend failed level 1-1 of New Super Mario Bros. by walking head first into the first Goomba that came her way. However, she completed Thomas Was Alone largely unaided. The actual difficulty of completing the levels was within her range and she had time to work out the puzzle elements of the platforming. The skill curve still provides challenge as it continues for veteran gamers, but the gameplay ramps up in a way that eases in those who’re new to the genre.

The way everything comes together creates a game that has a wonderfully relaxed pace. Something enjoyable and without undue pressure. It’s the kind game I come to just to enjoy myself and relax with games, something that as a reviewer I don’t always have time to do otherwise.

Tomas was Alone looks beautiful on PlayStation 3, but I can’t help but feel that its true home is on the PlayStation Vita. The game is divided into small levels, each delivering narrative and only taking a few minutes to complete. If you’ve got a ten minute trip on public transport that’s plenty of time to boot up the game, play a couple of levels and just pop it away for later. It’s built to be played in bitesize chunks and it’s easy to jump back into the story from any point and understand what’s happening.

[quote_right] “Thomas Was Alone should be considered up there with the best games available on Sony’s current platforms, downloadable or otherwise.” [/quote_right]Thomas Was Alone is at its best when its puzzles are making you think in new and exciting ways, unfortunately there’s a couple of levels that don’t have the same focus, namely stair climbing challenges. There are levels where you’ll have to stack blocks in a certain order to climb up to an otherwise unreachable area. This is fine as it provides a challenge and gets you thinking. The problem is occasionally you’ll be presented with a level where you need to climb a gap that size multiple times in a row; repeating the sequence five or six times. These feel unnecessary and can negatively effect the flow of the game. It’s not a huge issue, but it did irritate me at times when I felt like shouting “I know how to climb this gap, I’ve shown you I know how, don’t make me do it over and over!”

Thankfully, I can say that those moments are few and far between. For the most part the levels challenged me to do something I hadn’t done before, and no idea ever overstays its welcome. This games not overly long, but the time you spend in the game feels like time spent productively since it moves from idea to idea at such a strong pace.

Mike Bithell’s developer commentary track makes the PSN version completely worth your time and money even more than the PC/Mac version. (Side note: The commentary track is coming to PC/Mac in the future, but no specific date is announced as of this review.) I’m a bit of a sucker for a good commentary track, Valves games do a particularly good job of these, and while I wish there was an option to replace the narration subtitles with Commentary subtitles, playing through the commentary gave me some great insight into the game. Aspiring designers and developers: there’s absolute gold to be found in this commentary track.

Wrap Up

The gameplay in Thomas Was Alone mainly serves as a way to reinforce the stellar narrative, as does the music and pretty much everything else about the game’s design. The narrative is what stuck with me after playing on PC and I’m sure will it stick with many of you now it’s on PSN. This is the kind of game that should be up there with Journey or Guacamelee when people talk about the best, unique experiences available on Sony’s platforms. Sony is making their name in the console space by courting developers like Mike Bithell.

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Benjamin’s Flight DLC

I’m going to include the review of Benjamin’s Flight DLC at the end of this Thomas was Alone’s review, as I personally didn’t feel it differed enough from the main game to justify a separate review. But, since Benjamin’s Flight is purchased on its own, it warrants its own score.

The DLC adds a set of new levels featuring an entirely new set of characters, each with abilities that completely change up the flow of gameplay. Set before the main game, we see Benjamin and other AI’s desperately seeking out a destination that many dream of reaching, but very few ever see, known as The Fountain. I’ll avoid detailing the specific abilities in the DLC as finding them is half the fun, but there’s a couple of abilities that feel entirely different from anything I experienced in the main game. Benjamin’s ability to fly using a jetpack, the tituar flight ability, is unique in that it’s the only ability to allow levels where you never touch the surfaces of the environment, allowing for intricate courses filled with spikes you have to deftly weave between.

Benjamin’s Flight is considerably more challenging than the main game, and it pushed my reaction speed and coordination. This DLC is not for the casual gamer. This is for the Thomas Was Alone completionist looking for a challenging extension of the story. Sadly, there’s no developer commentary for the DLC, but that doesn’t stop it telling a tragically sweet story. For its low asking price, Benjamin’s Flight is easily worth playing if you consider yourself a competent gamer, and are looking for some more challenge from the game. However, for gamers who played the game from a similar perspective to my girlfriend, I would recommend against this as you’ll likely get frustrated by the sudden difficulty spike.

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About The Author

Founding Member

Laura’s gaming journey began in the 90′s when she was given a SNES by her older brother with Mario paint. From that day video games were all she thought about day or night, be it playing them, designing them, discussing them or writing about them. Why does she want to write about indie games? Because indie devs are awesome and she wants to be their new best friend by telling them how terrible their games are. That’s how it works right? Twitter: @LauraKBuzz Email: Laurak@indiehaven.com

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