The underpinning simplicity of Thomas Was Alone is, for that crucial first half hour, a little grating. But over time it expands in complexity and morphs into a puzzle game that is pleasant and satisfying, though lacking in eureka moments. By the final few levels (about three hours in), its challenge plateaus and there isn't quite enough thinking going on.
It begins as a platformer. The titular hero Thomas (represented by a slightly rubbery pink rectangle) must walk, and eventually jump, until he reaches a door and proceeds to the next level.
For this opening thirty minutes it feels too much like schooltime than recess. Players are taught and re-taught the fundamentals of interactivity such as walking to the right, jumping gaps, descending through the air and various mixtures of these elemental manoeuvres.
Designer Mike Bithell may want his game to be as accessible as possible, but the majority of his audience have been triple-jumping since 1997.
Speaking of Mario, there's one element in all the best platform games that Thomas Was Alone does not carry - depth. Mushroom Kingdom, Green Hill Zone, Kongo Jungle (et al) are blanketed with secrets, diversions and hints for the inquisitive, but Thomas Was Alone prefers to confine the player in a single caged room with only one route to exit. That's absolutely fine, it clearly doesn't want to be Mario, Sonic or Donkey Kong, but these tutorial lessons are too pedestrian for Bithell's market.
" Imagine an adventure starring the Tetris blocks and you're pretty warm"
However, stick with it and its regimented actions begin to pay off once the game ascends in complexity. Thomas is soon joined by other squares and rectangles that carry different attributes. Chris is an orange splodge with short-man syndrome and no real physical talent, while John is a towering skyscraper who can jump like Spider-Man. Claire is a stout square who can swim, while Sarah is an enfeebled jumper who compensates with her trampoline-like body.
Together this motley crew combine to overcome challenges that would be impossible for any single character. Meanwhile, the player must remedy the shortcomings of some squares with the abilities of others (this often involves setting characters up as stepping-stones).
Soon enough, this relatively flawed platformer evolves into a satisfying puzzle game. Imagine an adventure starring the Tetris blocks and you're pretty warm.
What brings it all to life is a fantastic script by Bithell and flawless narration by Danny Wallace. The plain and expressionless shapes, set in contrast to the colourful and vivid storytelling, is what makes Thomas Was Alone such a charming game even during those dreary tutorial levels.
Unfortunately the majority of conundrums can be solved on the fly - there's not much need for stopping and thinking. Towards the end there are a couple of bamboozle moments, and some excellent gravity-twisting assault courses - but not enough.
There's also something to say about Bithell's choice for minimalist graphics. While simplicity lends itself well to puzzle games (especially ones about spatial distribution), there's simply not enough to look at here while these rectangles slowly haul themselves up another higgledy-piggledy stairway.
While Thomas Was Alone often nods at Valve's 2007 puzzle-platformer Portal, it doesn't quite recapture that level-by-level emotional journey from overwhelmed stoner to propulsion mastermind.
It is nevertheless a charming and unique addition to your PS3, PS Vita or Steam library - an evening-long jaunt that costs about the same as a Burger King meal. It's reasonably priced, but is it worth your time? Kind of.
Starts slow and grows into a puzzle game that is pleasant and satisfying, though one that's lacking in eureka moments
- Sweet and charming
- Brilliantly narrated
- Fairly dreary opener
- Not smart enough
- Looks under-dressed