Thomas Was Alone is the most adorable game I have played this year. It’s also been around for a little while. First making an appearance as a flash game in 2010, developer Mike Bithell took the concept to adorable new heights on PC and Mac in 2012. Thomas Was Alone has been out long enough that I should have played it by now, especially with my affinity for artsy and adorable indie games but I hadn’t before this review. I’m glad I get to amend that issue. If I was ever unconvinced Thomas Was Alone was worth playing, I sure am now.
The real hook to Thomas Was Alone is its narrator. He is very charming, with a cute story about all the boxes within this puzzle platformer. Every box has a distinct personality and it’s a surprisingly effective draw. Most puzzle platformers don’t have a compelling narrative with charming characters and most boxes don’t have adorable interrelationships. This is probably the cutest story about AI’s in a computer mainframe I have ever heard. Even when I started to grow tired of the platforming, the story incentivised me to continue. I needed to know what was going to happen to this gang of rectangles. Thomas Was Alone does a great job playing with its players expectations. As much as I had heard about the wonderful story before playing the game, I didn’t really expect to become as attached to the gang of cubes and rectangles as I did.
Thomas and his friends all have different abilities that are communicated fairly effectively through shape and size. Shorter cubes can pass through small corridors, often to reach buttons to open gates for taller companions. Larger cubes might be buoyant or bouncy. Taller rectangles can jump higher. The foreground and the background are easy to tell apart, and player death is only ever a short setback. This is a very well presented game that I didn’t ever find myself confused by. Thomas Was Alone always gives you the tools you need to solve its puzzles. Even if I didn’t always know how to complete a level from the outset, I would have an idea of where to start. That made the experience all the more compelling for me.
While each character certainly is adorable and the narration is a treat, actual puzzle solving slows down significantly as more characters are added. Thomas on his own is fast and jumps reasonably well. Add in one more rectangle and things slow down but also open up new interesting possibilities in the puzzles. You put four of these rectangular AI’s in a room together and things start to get tedious. I like the character variation but my favourite levels incorporated just two of them at a time. Each level is small, often with the end in sight or one room over. I often solved the puzzles in my head long before I could get all my characters over to their end portals. It didn’t ever get to the point that I felt like putting Thomas Was Alone down forever but it did wear on me. In a more natural play environment I would be playing this for half an hour to an hour at a time over the course of a week or two.
This is definitely a game that is worth playing. Its core gameplay is fun, its characters are fun and it’s certainly unique. You may hear narratively focused indie platformer and immediately think Braid, Limbo, and/or Fez but it plays very differently and it has very different hooks. Blown up on my living room television it looks sharp. It plays well on the Xbox One controller and it runs well. Of all the crashes I have had on the box, Thomas Was Alone instigated none of them.
Thomas Was Alone has an interesting minimalist art style that isn’t as eye-catching as Fez but is nonetheless pleasant. Music is atmospheric but eventually began to wear on me. It is pleasant but after a while it started to fade into the background. Tracks repeat frequently and depending on how long your play sessions are, it may end up getting on your nerves. Much as a charming battle cry slowly begins to hammer at your skull as you make your way through a long role playing game, even the most atmospheric tracks can become irritating. This is a much better alternative to having a large variety of terrible songs but I thought about turning it down in favour of playing some of my own music after a while.
I’ve played my share of independently developed platformers and it’s not my absolute favourite but it is a very unique take on the genre. Puzzles aren’t as intricate as they are in Braid, as expansive as they are in Fez, or as action packed as Super Meat Boy. However, none of these games are as innately charming as Thomas Was Alone. The environment art contrasts well with the characters but it doesn’t really add much to the experience. I’m impressed by the amount of depth that a good narration lends to the whole production. Describing each component of Thomas Was Alone individually doesn’t really do it justice. It’s absorbing, it’s compelling and it’s about boxes that jump.
If you primarily game on Xbox One and you are in the market for a more relaxed game experience, it would be tough to do better than Thomas Was Alone. It offers no new content on the new platform but it’s still the same great game many people have been playing since 2012. Satisfying story, atmospheric soundtrack and wonderful cast all make the transition intact. While I wouldn’t recommend fans buy the title again if they already own it on console or PC, if you happened to let this game slip through the cracks like me, I recommend you take a look. The Xbox One hasn’t been the indie gallery the Xbox 360 was at launch but bringing Thomas Was Alone to Xbox One is a step in the right direction.