Saturday, April 27, 2013

A short REVIEW - Thomas Was Alone.

Sony's recent emphasis on indie games coming to the Vita continues to pay off with the humble but critically-lauded Thomas Was Alone, which has been kickin' around the Internet for the better part of three years.  The ten-dollar price tag makes it an easy impulse buy, but TWA's tight design ensures you'll be done with the title in a few scant hours.

"Gentle" is the best way to describe Thomas Was Alone, from its gameplay to its design to the dulcet tones of British humorist Danny Wallace, the occasionally-grating but generally-upbeat chiptune electronica from David Housden and the almost insultingly-simple design which ensure one is never playing through a sequence that doesn't serve as a tutorial or a build-up to the next slight twist on its mechanics.

The game's design is thoughtful, but rarely adventurous and rarely inspired.  Instead, Thomas Was Alone is very, very by-the-book, to the point that its first level is literally walking from one side of a room to another, the second level reveals that gravity has an effect on you and you can walk off edges, and the third introduces you to the jump mechanic.

That's it.  That's all you ever get, in terms of how you communicate with the colorful shapes onscreen.  Move left, move right, fall and jump.  While it's profoundly simple, a modicum of depth is gleaned from the game's reliance on multiple protagonists - squares and rectangles of varying size, movement speed and jump height.

But even so, this game isn't exactly trying to impress you with the depth of its mechanics, or its presentation.

Just looking at the above shapes and colors, you've probably got the gist of it.  Most of Thomas Was Alone's puzzles are solved by stacking the characters to allow, for example, Chris - the little orange square - access to a higher ledge he couldn't otherwise reach with his pathetic little hop.

And that's what's lovely about Thomas Was Alone.  I can tell you that orange square's name is Chris.  Thomas is the fuschia rectangle, and John - that arrogant pretty boy - is the yellow line.  I can't tell you the name of any of the ancillary characters from BioShock Infinite or Tomb Raider - but I don't have to look it up to let you know that the large blue square's name is Claire, and she fancies herself a superhero.

...what the heck?  How on earth am I more invested and interested in the emotions and personalities of blank swatches of color than the high-def, fully-mocapped, fully-voiced cast of this year's triple-As?

It's because Thomas Was Alone feels more like cracking open a story book than anything else.

The game - as a game - would function just as well without its story, given how simple and easy-going its puzzles and platforming "challenges" are, and TWA would remain a comfortably-designed little platformer with zero frills, minor challenge and not a particularly enthusiastic value for ten dollars.

With the narration, Thomas Was Alone becomes... affecting.  Touching.  Inspiring, even.  It's another example of how the medium can be so adept at connection, even as the rest of the production trembles before the more-pronounced ambitions of the PlayStation Network's other artsy, indie fare.

This is no visual treat a'la Journey.  It's mechanics aren't particularly involving or engaging, like Mark of the Ninja or Guacamelee.  It affords those qualities very short shrift.

But it's a nice story.   You might wanna' check it out when it's on sale.

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