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Thomas Was Alone (PlayStation 3) artwork

Thomas Was Alone (PlayStation 3) review

"So many games in this crowded genre do everything so much better than Thomas Was Alone that it is almost totally obsolete. It's only worth playing if you are really interested in it's main theme or if you are a fan of the designer."

Thomas Was Alone has been on my radar for awhile now as it seemed like a cool puzzle-platformer; a genre I've bee quite interested in in recent years since playing Where is My Heart?, Braid, and Closure. Its gimmick is that all the characters are little blocks but they are all interesting characters with emotions and psyches and stuff.

The game is pretty simple. It's a 2d puzzle-platformer. You usually play as several characters at once in each of its many short stages. You jump by pressing X, move with the d-pad or left stick, and switch characters with L1 and R1. You can also move the camera to get a look around with the right stick. Each character has a different skill set and shape. Some are the weak links that can barely get off the ground when they jump. Others can jump extremely high. The titular Thomas is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Many of the characters have interesting characteristics. I won't spoil them all, but a few examples are a character that floats in water (which is normally deadly) and one that can double jump. The goal of each level is to get each character to a specific exit portal that is shaped like they are. Once all of the characters get to their portal, they warp out to the next level.

Each of the many characters has their own personality. These are conveyed to us by the narrator, who speaks while you play. He tells you the internal thoughts of the characters. We learn their insecurities, their thoughts about each other, and watch their opinions change as time goes on.

Gameplay wise this game is very simple. The puzzles are pretty straightforward. They often involve getting the weaker members of your party where they need to go, often by stacking characters up to make little staircases, and then having the more mobile members jump up to where they need to be. It really doesn't get a lot more complicated than that. This makes for a leisurely feel to the game that is almost completely frustration free. It also misses what for me is the whole point of a puzzle platformer; those mind-blowing moments when you finally understand the solution to a brain-burning puzzle and you are blown away by the genius of it all. This is a very common feeling in the other games I mentioned above. Where Is My Heart? plays with the way you perceive the game world, forcing you to constantly stretched your mind just to understand what is going on around you. You'll lose track of the number of times your jaw will hit the floor when you realize how to manipulate time and space in just the right way to do what you need to do in Braid. And Closure's main mechanic let's you constantly manipulate the way you both perceive and interact with the game world. All three of these games fill you with a near constant sense of awe and discovery. Their puzzles are so smart and different than anything you've seen before that they really inspire. Thomas is almost completely lacking this feeling. It mostly just feels like jumping some characters up to where they need to go. There is one character who has a really different characteristic that you manipulate in an interesting way, but it's only present for a few levels and it isn't explored fully. To top things off, switching between characters is a pain as you often have to cycle through a bunch of characters to get to the one you want. This is disorienting, and the characters aren't grouped together logically. For example, some levels have your party split into two groups that can't interact, yet the characters that need to travel together are not next to each other on the little selection grid on the bottom of the screen, meaning you have to scroll through characters in the other group over and over as you do maneuvers that require you to take a few steps at a time with each of your characters. This makes the camera jump around crazily while you are trying to do stuff. This could be solved by getting rid of the selection grid and making character selection dynamic; pressing R1 would switch you to the character on your right, and L1 would switch you to the left.

I hate to compare a game to other games so much, but in this case the characteristics of these other games really show the big flaws in Thomas. It's just too basic. And that extends to the story too. The characters and their emotions and interactions are just not that interesting, and neither is the overall story about the nature of the journey Thomas and his friends are taking. There is really only one story part I found interesting at all, which is a big clue about the ending stuck in one of the texts blocks that introduces each set of levels. That was clever, but the rest of it is just pointless. I didn't really care about any of those little colored blocks I was jumping around. All this is especially glaring since the games I've been comparing Thomas to all have really, really stellar, even profound story telling.

Fortunately, the music is pretty good. I discovered through the in-game commentary that it is procedurally generated. It sounds like airy electronic music with a few bleeps and bloops thrown in. There is a main sound to the music that runs throughout the game, with each set of levels varying that theme in different ways.

You can probably tell that I'm heading towards a low score here. But you may have noticed that I mentioned an in-game commentary. I really love video game commentaries. I can't get into movie commentaries, but being able to play while a creator talks about the level you are in is great. I first experienced it in the first Sly Cooper, and I've wanted more ever since. I played through Thomas a second time to hear the commentary, and even though it isn't a very good game, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the game's creator, Mike Bithell, talk about how the game was made. It's a long and extensive commentary, and I really enjoyed it.

I was going to give Thomas Was Alone a quite low score, but I greatly enjoyed playing it with commentary enabled. It's not a good game though. It's basic to the point of it being a big flaw, and the story and characters are not interesting. So many games in this crowded genre do everything so much better than it that it is almost totally obsolete. It's only worth playing if you are really interested in it's main theme (which I actually haven't mentioned because it's a bit of a spoiler) or if you are a fan of the designer. Even someone who is looking for a more basic puzzle platformer would be better served by one of the games I mentioned above as they start you off easy and then teach you how to solve genius level puzzles. They certainly have their frustrating moments, but they also come out the other side in a flash of brilliance. Thomas is more of an exercise in remedial jumping. It's a 4 out of 10.

Robotic_Attack's avatar
Community review by Robotic_Attack (February 06, 2015)

Robotic Attack reviews every game he plays... almost.

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Germ posted February 07, 2015:

So glad you contributed here big bro! It's time for the Davis brothers to take over HG.
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Robotic_Attack posted February 16, 2015:

Sounds good!

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