Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Thomas Was Alone (Vita)

It isn’t often that I invest in indie games, mainly because I’m not only interested in a lot of big budget titles, but I also have a large backlog of games in my library that I could potentially review at any time. I also don’t see the need to invest in every single indie game that people praise because, again, my priorities are different. For these reasons, I mainly obtain indie games cheaply through Humble Bundles or for free via my PlayStation Plus subscription, although occasionally I’ll gladly invest fully in a title that I really want to play such as Journey. It was my PlayStation Plus subscription that allowed me to access the critically acclaimed Thomas Was Alone on both my PS3 and Vita, though I opted to play it on my Vita due to having a lot of time on a recent trip. Within the couple hours it took me to play through all 100 levels, I could see how it would be heavily praised, but at the same time I didn’t feel as connected to it as others did and I felt unsure that I would have spent $10 on it.

Thomas Was Alone is about an AI named Thomas who finds himself alone in a test chamber. As he keeps going up and to the right, he runs into more AIs, including Chris, who doesn’t like that Thomas can jump higher than him. As the AIs meet each other and eventually form a group of seven, each with their own personalities and abilities, they all find out the truth about their situation and learn about a world outside of their own.

Thomas' story is also self-referential.

The story is what is most heavily praised about Thomas Was Alone and I can see why. It does a very good job of giving unique traits and characterization to a group of minimalist rectangles. Danny Wallace’s narration certainly helps in keeping the player interested in what the story has to say and can add a humorous tone to the script. However, I didn’t really find myself completely invested in the characters throughout the game, though I did find myself caring more once the game took a tonal shift in the latter half in a story that seems otherwise unconnected to Thomas’, like a sequel that never got made but was put in anyway to get the level count up to 100. I thought about why this was for a minute and I think I’ve figured it out. One part of it is that minimalist games about isolation and companionship, mostly on the theme of love, are so prevalent on Kongregate that it’s become a running joke in both comments and even game titles. As a result, it felt a little like I was playing a game with similar themes, except that developer Mike Bithell was asking for money.

The other aspect is the humor, which sometimes felt like it was trying a little hard to be funny by way of including what I saw as a list of things that would make geeks laugh, including references to Transformers and Nathan Fillion (not Nathan Fillion in any particular role, just Nathan Fillion the actor (maybe that reference is aimed at Browncoats?)). To me, these references also took away from the game’s ability to be timeless. To clarify, I loved it when South Park: The Stick of Truth made references to pop culture icons like Facebook/Twitter and Skyrim or timely references to current events like Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos and the infamously faulty Obamacare website (I’ll stop right there) because South Park has pretty much always been timely about what they have commentary about, so it felt natural for the game to also be a product of its time. With Thomas Was Alone however, I felt that because of the nature of the game, it should have been more timeless, but because they decided to try and get geeks and hardcore gamers to laugh at their references, including two for dead memes, the game became an unintentional period piece and will thus be more of a time capsule that won’t be as appealing to newcomers down the line. But this is just my opinion and you do not necessarily have to agree with it.

While the story didn’t draw me in as much as it did for others, the gameplay is what really kept me going. Each of the seven-plus characters has a unique size and special ability, which may need to be used in tandem in order to reach the level goal. As the levels get progressively complex, it’s good that they keep things fresh every so often, like introducing a new character or gameplay element such as floating colors that can change someone’s power upon touching it. Though a level from time to time felt a little annoying to complete, I liked having to keep thinking about the world around me to find a way to the exit. The platforming is very solid and tight, although I did run into a couple of technical issues. The Vita version presents multiple ways to switch between characters, since you can use the L and R buttons, hold your finger or thumb on the bottom right corner of the screen and scroll between available characters or tap the touchscreen in the general direction or exact position of the character you wish to use next. I ended up using all three options at some point or another, since the levels can get really complex, but personally I found the touch screen to be a little sensitive, since I would occasionally lightly tap the screen by accident and end up controlling a character I hadn’t planned to use at that moment; In the wrong situation this would end up undoing a bit of progress. I’d blame this more on how the controls were applied to the Vita as opposed to the Vita itself, since this does in a way show off just how responsive the system’s touchscreen is. In any case, try to keep your thumbs away from the Vita screen if you can unless you plan on playing that way anyway.

One of the game's more complex puzzles (it's a little harder than it looks).

As more of a side note, there is a bit of replay value present in the form of collectibles that are very well hidden throughout each chapter of the story. If you miss one, you can simply select any of the 100 levels at will from the main menu. This would also help a player if they are shooting for a particular score on the leaderboard.

I suppose the last thing to mention would be the graphics and sound. For a minimalist game, the graphics are very good with a great color choice and incredible lighting and shadow work. On a couple of occasions however, the shadows actually worked against me since a combination of specific background colors, character colors and shadows could actually cause the darker colored characters to become nearly invisible. On the subject of sound, the effects were well-chosen, though I did recognize some sounds from other games, and the subtle score was a good choice, as it enhances the mood without drawing too much attention to itself.

Thomas Was Alone is a game worth trying out, although I didn’t like it as much as other people did. The story is interesting, though not thoroughly compelling, and the jokes may be funny to some but end up turning the game into a time capsule instead of aiding its potential timelessness. On the other hand, the platforming is very good at stretching the mind in figuring out how to make characters with more specialized abilities work together to reach the end goal. If you’re curious about trying it out, then by all means do so, but I would recommend trying to get it through a future Humble Bundle if able or for free through PlayStation Plus (as of this writing, it’s still one of the free titles in the Instant Game Collection). It’s a game that will appeal to many, but the $10 price point may not feel completely worth it for everyone.

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