Thomas Was Alone (and Benjamin’s Flight DLC)
April 25, 2013 6 Comments
Early on in Thomas Was Alone, I really didn’t get the hype for it. “THIS is the game all the cool kids are talking about?” I tweeted, somewhat baffled. I mean, don’t get me wrong. The game was alright. But my fans had been trumpeting this one since it launched on PC last summer, promising me that it was a platformer unlike anything I’ve played before. To a degree, they were right. You just can’t tell right away. Thomas Was Alone is one of those slow-starters that wakes up at seven but doesn’t get out of bed until eight.
At heart, Thomas Was Alone is a minimalistic platform-puzzler with the hook being an eccentric storyline that gives personality to the squares and rectangles you control. Again, it’s something that didn’t grab me at first. It came across as artsy-fartsy, bordering on pretentious. But, about a third of the way through, it started to grow on me. Who would have guessed that it was possible to give such distinct traits to fundamental shapes, with no animation sprites or anything resembling humanity? It does it so well that I would think one could consider Thomas a candidate for strongest writing of the year. But I have to disqualify it for that, on account of a couple groan-inducing references to the Cake is a Lie and the Arrow to the Knee. God damn it so much. Is there some kind of code on the indie development scene that I’m not aware of? Like a secret handshake or something? Two guys go up to each other at a developer conference, lock pinkys, touch ring-fingers with the other hand, say “The Cake is a Lie!” and then fall down laughing until it hurts because that will NEVER EVER grow old or stop being funny ever no matter what? Well it’s not funny and it hasn’t been for years. No matter how many ways you guys try to make it work, it never does. You’ve beaten this dead horse into dust, and now you’re just beating your fist on the blood-soaked ground underneath it. STOP IT!!
Anyway, mostly strong writing. However, it ended without giving me a sense of closure for the characters that I had grown fond of, or anything resembling a satisfactory conclusion for the overall story. It just sort of ends. And don’t look for the DLC to provide the comfort of an ending either, because it doesn’t. I guess Thomas Was Alone’s finale is supposed to be open to interpretation or something, but I was left disappointed.
You know what? I don’t play platformers for their stories. If they’re decent or better, that’s just a bonus. For this genre, gameplay is king. In which case, Thomas Was Alone is at best a knight, bordering on a rook. After a mind-numbingly dull start, the level design picks up momentum about one-third of the way in. By time you’ve reached the finish line, you’ll have played some of the most inspired levels seen in platforming in a long while. But, the ratio of slog-to-awesome is not so great. A good portion of levels revolve around stacking your characters in a way to make a staircase for the less jumpy in your squad. A handful of these would have been just fine. But sometimes you’ll have to build the exact same staircase five or more times in a single level. It’s tedious busy-work that needlessly cramps the game’s whimsical style.
When Thomas Was Alone’s level design is good, it’s really good. So good that my ear-to-ear grin was in place because of just how clever a world was designed and not because of the narration. Quite frankly, after a way-too-long tutorial sequence with levels and platforming so basic that it makes Atari-era stuff like Pitfall! look advanced, I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as it was. Then I would be hit with some pretty ingenious stages that involve timing, precision platforming, and thinking outside-the-box. I loved these moments. I’ve always said I’ll take those “ta-da!” moments in puzzlers over the best headshots in shooters or game-winning shots in sports games. Thomas doesn’t provide a lot of those moments, but when it does, it’s special.
Don’t worry, puzzle haters. There is nothing here that will bend your brain or make you have to consult GameFAQs. At most, Thomas will ask of you to apply some forward thinking and course plotting. Most of the puzzles revolve around what order you guide the blocks to the goal of each stages. Victory is achieved through having all blocks in their unique exit doors at the same time. Once you have a feel for the abilities and limitations of each block, figuring how to get them to the doors comes naturally. Actually, it almost becomes instinctual. It’s so rare that a puzzle-platformer does that to me that I can’t help but be impressed. It also helps that the controls are smooth and the main game never asks more of a player than can be reasonably expected. I don’t consider myself especially skilled at platformers, but I must be getting better. I figure I died probably around a dozen times over the course of the game’s one-hundred levels. Thomas Was Alone gives a trophy out for dying 100 times, but by time I had finished the game, I still hadn’t earned it. I’m pretty proud of that.
I’m not here to give the game an undeserved blowjob though. There’s plenty of problems with it. I’ve described some above, but the one that gets me the most is the difficulty curve. Or lack thereof. Other critics have noted how perfect the curve is. It makes me wonder if they played the same game as me. Even late in Thomas Was Alone, I encountered stages that offered no challenge at all to finish. The sixth world (really the seventh world, since the world numbering starts in the zeros) especially stands out. I wasn’t timing it, but it probably took between ten to fifteen minutes to complete while possessing the most basic and dull stages since the opening tutorial. Just weird that this would pop-up over half-way through. But stages like this are all over the place. I guess the excuse for these (and the overly long fish-in-barrel stages that start this thing) is they’re there as place-holders to drive the story. Well that’s a shitty excuse. A platformer should never let proper storytelling get in the way of proper pacing. People probably should buy the game for the game. I mean, it’s a pretty good game. So while I enjoyed the story, I almost resent the fact that the vastly superior gameplay was in part sacrificed for it. The result is a curve that appeared to be drawn by someone laying in a hammock during an earthquake.
After finishing the final stage, you’re treated to an extremely brief ending, and then the credits roll. I was disappointed not just by the ending but by the last level. Thomas Was Alone goes out with a whimper instead of a bang, which left me wanting more. After stewing on it overnight, I decided to grab the overpriced DLC pack. My intent was to get my craving for more Thomas out of my system. Mission accomplished, but not in the way I intended.
The DLC levels are so horrible and mismatched with the main body of the game that I actively questioned whether developer Mike Bithell had entered his emo phase in life when he designed them. Thomas Was Alone was a quirky logic-puzzle-platformer. The DLC levels alternate between back-to-basics platforming (that you have to pay extra to suffer through) and punisher-stages designed with nothing else in mind than a huge body count. What a stupid decision on developer’s part. These levels do not remotely have the almost childish innocence the main game does. It’s also the first time the controls didn’t feel right. Benjamin, the star of the DLC, possess a jet pack, but the only use they could come up with for it was navigating narrow corridors of spikes. The controls here are so touchy and the margin for error so low that any possible fun that could be had gives way to frustration and boredom. Benjamin’s Flight has twenty stages, and while the cutesy story is present, I can honestly say that I didn’t find one single stage of this pack to be worth paying any amount of money for. It might be the worst level pack I’ve ever purchased. I just don’t get why the tone changed so much. It would be like announcing that they’re going to make a new Dark Knight movie, only this one will be a buddy comedy and Batman is being recast as Adam Sandler.
So here’s where I stand: Thomas Was Alone is pretty decent, but it takes a while to get that way. I wish the developer had focused more on ingenuity. When the levels in Thomas are clever, it’s one of the best of its breed to come out in a while. There’s just enough meat here to call it a must-buy. At the same time, the story ultimately left me feeling unsatisfied, and the game only has enough “this is amazing!” moments that it ultimately feels under-realized. You can’t count on the DLC to drown-out those thoughts, because it feels rushed and sort of half-assed. So different from the feel of the main quest that I was a little surprised to learn they came from the same guy who had awed me just yesterday. If I had my way, Thomas Was Alone would be alone, because I would bury that DLC in the desert next to unsold Atari carts.
$7.99 with PlayStation Plus discount (normally priced $9.99) plus $3.49 (Benjamin’s Flight DLC) said “hey now, Red Kryptonite has caused all sorts of problems, so don’t go there” in the making of this review.
Thomas Was Alone is Chick Approved, but for God’s sake, skip the DLC unless it’s free. And even then, you’re not missing anything by ignoring it.