Thomas Was Alone PS3 review – 2D platformer takes on a whole new dimension

Don’t worry, he’s not lonesome for long. After a couple of levels Thomas, a small, red rectangle, is joined by Chris, an even smaller, orange square. And then along comes John, the high jumping, fast running, yellow member of the group (and I mean that literally, it’s not an accusation of cowardice). And that’s not even half the ‘cast’ of this simple indie gem that was so well received upon its PC release last summer.

The gameplay premise could hardly be simpler: each levels tasks you with getting one or more coloured quadrilateral to the portal (a basic white outline) which matches its shape. And other than using the shoulder buttons in order to switch the rectangle you’re in control of, running and jumping (with X) are your only facilities with which to do so. The rub comes from the fact that each member of the group has different abilities, so you must utilise them in tandem in order for all to reach their destination.

Thomas Was Alone PS3 review

Our star, Thomas, is the yardstick for average: average size, average speed, average jumping height. Chris is comparatively underpowered, only able to hop small distances and move at a (really square) snail’s pace. But it’s not all about size and shape, for later we meet group members with more exotic powers. Claire, a super-sized blue number, can float in water, whereas everyone else dies if submerged. And Laura, long and flat, acts as a trampoline in order to propel the other four-siders to greater heights.
Combining the abilities of an asymmetrical cast in order to achieve objectives is nothing new, and the concept will be familiar to anyone who’s ever played The Lost Vikings or Lemmings. But what this game does is strip away any and all visual excess, taking the idea down to its purest aesthetic form. And then – and this is where Thomas Was Alone triumphs – it manages to layer personality onto this basic, right-angled world.

This is done partly through the narration of Danny Wallace (who also voices Shaun in the Assassin’s Creed games), who introduces our silent cast and keeps us abreast of their thoughts and motives via the amusing and self-referential script. But it’s also done partly through the gameplay mechanics themselves. The game starts slowly but once it hits its stride (after around an hour of the four-ish running time) the interactions of the coloured rectangles really gives the impression of a team of personalities working together for the greater good. And yes, I really did just write that about a bunch of characters who are as visually distinctive as a Dulux paint swatch.

There are problems. A slow opening is reflected by an anticlimactic ending – the game throws in an unnecessary epilogue after its natural crescendo – and the puzzles mostly require more ‘doing’ than ‘figuring out’, which is the wrong ratio for a game like this. But overall Thomas Was Alone is a winning piece of minimalist game design that manages to do a lot with a little in an industry which far too frequently achieves the exact opposite, and it deserves much praise for that.

Our Score

Score: 8