Polygons Equal Nothing: Thomas Was Alone Review

I don’t know if you fine people out there have noticed, but Sony has been doing a tremendous job porting quality indie titles to the PS3 and the Vita.  One after another, it seems like they’re really sticking to their promise in regards to better support less enormous — and often more creative — developers.  The latest game to find its way across the platform oceans and onto the shores of the PS3 and Vita is the acclaimed 2D platformer, Thomas Was Alone.

As soon as the menu loaded, I caught myself muttering "what a charming game."  The design aesthetics are sleek and easy on the eyes.  But the charm doesn't stop there.  Oh, no.  T.W.A. has a lovably unique manner of storytelling.  Few games rely so heavily on a narrator, but it’s made abundantly clear early on why voice-actor Danny Wallace won a BAFTA award for his performance.  Wallace posseses that infamous British wit, which breathes life into an otherwise seemingly normal tale.  Not that normal is a bad thing in this case.  In fact, it’s probably for the best, considering the themes at the heart of T.W.A..

When you get down to the nitty-gritty, T.W.A. is all about friendship.  You may be looking at the above screen-shot and questioning my sanity, but I assure you:  these quadrilaterals have heart.  Not a word of dialogue is exchanged, but their feelings are made as clear as day, thanks to the superb writing of The Omniscient Narrator’s script. At any given moment you know exactly what each character is feeling.  

For example, there’s the ever-pessimistic Chris, whose lack of any notable skill makes him jealous of Thomas’ cheery attitude and exceptional agility.  Then there’s John, who is egotistical to the point of narcissism, only sticking around for the sake of having an audience to praise his jumping prowess.  Each of the dozen or so characters is a mixture of simplistic abilities and complex personalities.  Thus, an interesting dynamic is formed between the characters and how they progress over the course of the game.

Thomas had a new theory: the world was training him . . . he was evolving. He just wished he had someone to share it with.

Training indeed.  Yet for what?  My initial thought was that T.W.A. is one giant metaphorical commentary on the evolution of games and those that play them.  You and Thomas are being taught about the "do"s and "don't"s of his digital world.  In this day and age, it may be obvious to most platforming players to avoid any and all forms of liquid, unless otherwise instructed.  Imagine the first time you played one, though. You probably didn’t figure a placid body of water would be so deadly. Thomas is representative of the young and naive gamer we all used to be.  

Moments like this took me back down nostalgia lane, and reminded me why I’ve grown to love gaming as much as I do.  The first time you play a new game, it’s like being born anew into an alien world.  Over the years, we’ve all built up a sizable amount of knowledge, which has indubitably made us "better" gamers.  T.W.A. calls upon those now-distant memories and feelings in a way that few other games have.  Like watching a baby take their first steps or make their first friend, T.W.A. feeds on gamer nostalgia in all the right ways.  It references not only our early experiences, but many of the classics to which we connect those experiences.  And then it uses those early experiences to help us connect to a sweeping narrative.

Teamwork is essential to success.

My biggest gripe would have to be the random difficulty spikes.  T.W.A., clearly favors story over gameplay, so as you might expect, it’s a relatively easy game.  Until you hit one of the more difficult levels.  By no means is it Dark Souls, but the jump in challenge can be jarring and downright frustrating at times.  There’s even a classic mistake which most modern games avoid like the plague:  checkpoints seem to appear too infrequently during these more difficult levels.  After the completion of a challenging section, I was surprised to see I would have to beat yet another to reach the checkpoint. Upon failing you’re forced to listen to the narration, over and over.  

As I mentioned before, I love the The Narrator's writing and delivery, but having to hear it every time I made the slightest mistake only added to the frustration.  Compared to easier levels, where checkpoints are as common as soiled pants in a preschool class, there is clearly room for improvement.  

There is also the matter of the subtitles.  While this may be a more nit-picky problem, I feel it needs to be addressed.  Subtitles are not stationary; they move around like text in the manner of an old-fashioned PC boot-up screen.  While I’m fortunate enough to have ultra-functional hearing, I worry how annoying the constantly shifting text could be for deaf or hearing-impaired gamers. What is a minor distraction for most could be a significant flaw for others.

Finally, let's talk mechanics.  As a platformer, T.W.A. handles exceptionally well.  Rarely did I slide off edges or miss  jumps due to unresponsive controls.  Puzzles come in two forms:  ones which require you to combine the abilities of each character, and those that rely on a single character's talents.  The multi-character puzzles are rarely difficult to figure out, so occasionally some levels come off as redundant.  For the most part, each level will test your puzzle-solving abilities in such a way that makes T.W.A. accessible and appealing to all skill levels and ages. 

Look at those 'polygons' David Cage!

Thomas Was Alone is a human tale about rectangles.  

Freaking rectangles.  

The fact that such a visually simplistic game is able tell a story and get me deeply invested is a big screw you to parts of the AAA market.  Not that I’m suggesting Thomas Was Alone is your stereotypical, pretentious, anti-AAA indie game — because it really isn't.  This sort of creativity is a welcome revelation.  The whole notion of "polygons equal emotion" is a flimsy one at best, and Thomas Was Alone proves that flimsyness ten-fold.  The few flaws to the otherwise perfectly thematic gameplay are more than made up for by the stellar craftsmanship of the story and its characters.  While Thomas Was Alone is not technically a new game, it’s well worth price of admission if you missed out on the PC version or desire a mobile version for your Vita.