Format reviewed: Wii U eShop
Other formats available: Steam, Playstation Network, iOS, Android, Xbox One
Developer: Mike Bithell
Publisher: Curve Studios
Website: Thomas Was Alone
Originally released all the way back in 2010, with further revisions and DLC added to the experience on a plethora of platforms, it finally arrives on the Wii U eShop with all previous updates and DLC in place making this a definitive version. But does Thomas Was Alone for the Wii U provide a definitive puzzle-platform experience?
To start to answer that question it’s best to understand that Thomas Was Alone is a puzzle platformer that relies heavily on the latter and less so on the former. It features 120 levels, 15 playable characters, commentary for every level by the game’s creator Mike Bithell, a beautifully melancholic soundtrack by David Housden, and the ultimate selling point for this game a BAFTA Games Award winning narrative performance from Danny Wallace.
Within a computer mainframe, of a company named Artificial Life Solutions, a network connection spike has allowed a number of the experimental Artificially Intelligent (AI) forms to become self-aware. These self-aware entities are represented as coloured quadrilateral shapes that are moved by the Analogue Stick of the GamePad or the Wii U Pro Controller. Other moves available to the player are limited to jump with the A or B Button. There are no other moves or upgrades available to the player other than those which the AI quads possess. For example, the eponymous Thomas, a red rectangle of moderate size, is a general all-rounder with average jump height and length, and nothing else special. John, however, is a taller, thinner yellow rectangle who can jump to 3 times the height of Thomas, and is not afraid to be a show-off. Each shape within the game has its own special physics and can be used to help others to their allocated exits. Exits are blank squares which correspond to the shape of the AI that needs to relocate themselves to that position. Get all allocated AI shapes into their specific exits in order to complete a level. There are 12 levels in total, and within each level there are 10 sub-levels to complete along a given theme, or set of characters.
Other notable characters, and their abilities, include Chris, a small orange square of dumpy proportions who exhibits his dumpiness in his lack of jumping height and angry persona, but his size makes him good at squeezing under lower hanging obstacles. Laura, the loner, a laying down flat dark red rectangle, can have others bounce on top of her to reach higher platforms, and is concerned that the others are just using her for their own advantage. Claire, a very large blue square, who has vast insecurities about her size and jumping prowess until she discovers her super power, floating. Later in the game James makes an appearance with blatant disregard for the Laws of Newtonian Physics, he basically refuses to adhere to gravity and clings to the ceiling. Sarah, a purple tall rectangle that can double jump, and puts John’s jumping height to shame, leading John to re-examine his ability and bravado.
Toward the very end of the game grey AI’s can use shifters that allow them to pick up the ability of the previous AI’s that correspond to that colour. Pick up a blue shifter and float, like Claire before them, purple, double jump, etc. The last 2 levels of the Wii U version are the DLC that was made available for other platforms and includes Benjamin a green square with the ability to use a jet propulsion pack that allows him to hover and fly through levels, adding yet another dimension to the style of platforming on offer.
The puzzle element of Thomas Was Alone relates to your ability to fathom out how to get a number of characters from A to B without dying. Die, however, and only that individual AI shape has to restart from the beginning, or a reached checkpoint, not all characters. The puzzling of Thomas Was Alone is the low point of the game. It relies far too heavily on platform jumping. Chris, because of his limited jumping performance, can’t reach the next platform, so make a stairway for him using 2 or 3 other characters, and hey presto he’s on the next platform. Oh, there are 6 more identical sections where this exact ‘puzzle’ must be overcome. It can become a little infuriating to do this numerous times within the same level, but when a lot of the levels exhibit the same ‘puzzle’ mechanic it does grate. Fortunately, the levels are all kept short and to the point and can be finished within a minute or two. The whole game can be finished within 4 hours.
This short level structure lends itself well to speed-running, and Thomas Was Alone does not disappoint in this area. There are local and online leader boards available to compare your speed with the rest of your friends and others. However, due to the nature of the character selection, the player controls one character at a time and can freely change between characters by scrolling through them which a click of the R and L shoulder buttons, speed-running feels unnecessarily cumbersome. This is especially true when I’m holding the GamePad in my hands and all that does is replicate what the TV screen is doing. It would have made perfect sense to have a map on the GamePad with the location of each shape perfectly visible and the player able to touch which they want to control at any given time. Or even a simple pictorial representation of each character that could be touched for selection.
Thomas is level-headed, Chris is frustrated at his shortcomings, Laura is insecure, etc. How do I know so much about the individual characters of these vocally challenged, but colourful geometric shapes you may well ask. And why should we care about these characters? The narration is what brings all these AI geometrical entities to life. Danny Wallace, the narrator, and the script he performs work on a level that reinforces all that you know about friendship. The story, if there is a story, is told from the perspective of how all the characters in the game interact and see each other. The script is nothing revelatory, but is aimed at a sense of comfortable child-like curiosity about how to behave around others while pursuing one’s own goals. There are wonderfully touching moments, like when Laura finding Chris insufferably obnoxious slowly falls for his charms, whilst Chris has always fancied her. It all touches on the insecurities of understanding life and your surroundings, how best to help others, and through that mutual help foster relationships that blossom into true friendships, or trials of adversity.
That the game looks simple with beautifully illuminated subtle shadows arising from subtle light sources, adding to the melancholic piano playing and the wonderful narration, is a bonus.
A game that highlights friendships through platform exploring. Let down only by the lack of challenge because of the ease of its puzzles throughout the entire experience. Thomas Was Alone is an experience that will put a smile on your face for the sheer beautifully animated narration of the characters dispositions and struggle for understanding of burgeoning relationships, and their context to the world around them.
Review by Lee Davies for Nintendo: Review