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REVIEW / Thomas Was Alone (Wii U)

 

2015.02.09 update: This game made our Top 5 console games of 2014 list!

This is Thomas. He is a friendly, adventurous red rectangle that is pretty good at jumping. He is also alone. Well…was alone. We became friends. I actually like him a lot. If he were a real person, we’d be bros. In fact, it’s Thomas – his positive outlook on life and all the colorful friends he meets throughout the game – that made Thomas Was Alone an incredibly enjoyable experience.

 

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Thomas was alone.

 

At first glance you may think controlling a red rectangle is a little weird. I’ll grant you, it was a bit odd at first but then you learn that this red rectangle named Thomas wants to experience life! And he has stuff he is good at. He has fears, dreams and ambition. You truly connect with him and his friends and hear their thoughts via the phenomenal narration of Danny Wallace (who is also the voice of Shaun Hastings from the Assassin Creed series). Thomas and friends are exploring a land they don’t know too much about. They don’t even quite know why they are there except that they seem to always need to travel up and to the right.

In terms of gameplay, Thomas Was Alone plays out very traditionally. You start at point A and need to reach point B. What happens in-between the points is up to you. As Thomas begins to make friends, each stage becomes more and more elaborate because each of Thomas’s friends has a different function, ability, size or shape that may need to be called upon to solve a given puzzle. His friend’s colors also come into effect due to colored switches that can only be pressed by the correctly colored friend. Let’s meet them!

 

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The bottom-right corner or every stage shows which of Thomas’s friends are available for use. He gets a lot of them.

 

Now I’m not going to reveal every single friend Thomas has in Thomas Was Alone, but I will tell you a few just to get you interested.

Chris the Jealous Orange Square: Chris is the first character you meet after Thomas. He is short, orange and can’t jump very high. I picture him as the out-of-shape kid that gets picked last in gym class. He is envious of Thomas’s above average jumping abilities and frequently bad mouths the other shapes. His small stature is often needed to get into areas others can’t. But boy does he need help getting to high places. Luckily his “girl friend” helps him out.

John the Egotistical Yellow Rectangle: John originally came off as arrogant and all about himself but I feel like he isn’t that way on purpose. He doesn’t think he’s acting better than everyone. It’s just his personality. In John’s defense however, he has the best jumping abilities in the game.  He can jump higher and farther than anyone else and since most of the puzzles in this platformer involve getting to higher places, John can easily bypass the most difficult obstacles.

Claire the Super Powered Blue Square: Claire is one of my favorites. She is a big blue square and when you first meet her she thinks she is about to die. She is at the top of a crumbling tower sinking into the watery depths below. In Thomas Was Alone, water is bad. If any shape even touches water, they dissolve into a million pixelated pieces…except for Claire who learned she is immune to water and can swim. Having these “super powers” as she calls them didn’t go to her head however. She meets Thomas and his friends and decides to help them whenever she can, as any super hero would. Thomas and friends frequently use her large size and super powers to ferry themselves safely through watery puzzles. Now all she needs is a cape.

Laura the Pessimistic Pink Rectangle: Laura is Chris’s girl friend. Well…at least she is in Chris’s mind. Laura likes Chris too but neither one has told each other yet. The reason Laura and Chris make such a good match is that they are both unsure what to think about the other shapes. Laura’s special function also pairs incredibly well with Chris. See, whoever jumps on top of Laura (who is a long, horizontal rectangle) has increased jump height. Jump ability is something Chris is envious of Thomas for, so naturally he loved Laura and what she can do from the get-go. However, Laura is sort of being stalked by this dark, shape-eating, pixel cloud and fears anyone who gets close to her will be eaten. So she is hesitant when it comes to connecting with others and has a poor outlook on life…until she met Chris.

 

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Here is Thomas and Chris using Claire to save them from the rising water. This puzzle was actually very tricky.

 

There are many other friends, each with their own color, shape and personality, that Thomas eventually meets during the course of his titular adventure. One of them can even fly! His friends transform what was originally a simple platformer into this vast universe of shapes working together to explore the world in which they live. The levels utilize a nice balance of character switching, ability usage and proper timing. To make things even trickier, each shape that appears in a level has an ending location they MUST end up, otherwise you can’t advance to the next stage. It would be 10x easier to have John jump up several platforms with ease and end the stage bit that’s not how it works.

John might be able to jump to Platform A but what about Thomas, Chris and Laura? Thomas can probably hop on top of Chris then jump to where John is. Chris can use Laura to to the platform but that still leaves Laura down there by herself. No wonder she has abandonment issues.  You have to think about how to get Laura, who has horrendous jumping abilities like Chris, to a high platform. Eventually you work out that it’s a stair puzzle. Stair puzzles involve the shapes jumping on top of another to form a stair case that one of the other shapes (like Laura) can jump up and to a higher location. puzzles aren’t always that cut and dry either. Some puzzles can have multiple solutions. You just have to figure out which way works best for you.

 

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The graphics in Thomas Was Alone are very minimalistic. It truly goes to show that you don’t need a big graphics budget to produce a great game on a next-gen system. Each of Thomas’s friends are different colors, the level background varies in color and everything else is black. Through proper narration and storytelling though, Thomas Was Alone becomes something more than what’s seen on the screen. It becomes a challenging adventure you’re in control of. Thomas and friends are your friends too, you feel a connection with them that would regardless of if the game is in HD or 8-bit. The levels feel whimsical and non-threatening. Even in the more dangerous levels you typically get to set your own pace. Thomas Was Alone won’t hurl you into a situation that causes you to panic and not be able to enjoy its simplistic beauty and tone.

Thomas Was Alone has easily become my new favorite puzzle game (R.I.P. Monochroma). The depth of personality and character Curve Digital managed to pack into these shapes is astounding. I never felt like I understood the struggle game characters were going through or what they are thinking as quickly as I did in Thomas Was Alone. Playing a few levels with a certain character truly gives you insight into who they are and what they can do or want to do. That is what makes Thomas Was Alone so great, the near-instant connection with the characters. I’d watch a movie with these shapes in it. The fact that this game has a fantastic puzzle aspect to it is just an added bonus.  If you haven’t had the pleasure of playing Thomas Was Alone add it to your Christmas list. It’s $10.99 now on the Nintendo eShop.

 

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