Rectangles as video game characters go back a long way. The first recorded video game, the first console game, and the first mainstream arcade game all “starred” simple rectangles. Thomas Was Alone brings rectangles back to their roots as video game protagonists, but they’re far more than Tennis paddles this time. These rectangles have their own powers and personalities in this charming and inventive puzzle platformer.
Thomas Was Alone starts out with an AI program, the eponymous Thomas, alone in a digital world he doesn’t understand. The second word of the title is key, however, because Thomas does not stay alone for long. Thomas is quickly joined by other rectangles, each with their own personality, special ability, and perfectly ordinary name. While the characters never directly speak or do anything the player isn’t controlling, every level has a narrator describe the rectangles’ goals and feelings towards each other. The full personalities superimposed onto silent rectangles are inherently funny, and makes the story very entertaining. The game eventually tries to get more serious, which doesn’t work quite as well (the incredibly abstract nature of the story works for comedy, but makes keeping track of a developing plot confusing), but the writing is well above par for a game of this genre.
The gameplay in Thomas Was Alone starts out as very simple. Thomas can move and jump through the two-dimensional platforming levels, and only needs to reach a goal. There are no enemies in the game, although there are a few hazards that will kill you if you touch them. Things start getting complex and the puzzle part of the gameplay is revealed when Thomas is joined by other characters. Every character is a jumping rectangle, but they all have something unique to contribute (except for one character, who is fully aware of that and has an inferiority complex as a result). You can switch between all the characters in a level at any time, and you have to use all of their abilities to get each character to their designated exit. Examples of special abilities include double jumping, floating in usually lethal water, and being gravitationally drawn to the ceiling instead of the floor. The game introduces new characters consistently throughout the entire experience, and most of the characters are fun to use.
The challenge level of the game is very balanced. You will have to understand the abilities of each character and use them inventively to reach the end of levels, as well as have skill at platforming, but nothing ever feels overwhelming. The only part of the gameplay I found annoying is getting low jumping characters up stair-like structures that require constant switching between characters to create stepping stools for the character who can barely jump, often several times in a row. Similarly, there is one rectangle type, a team of five identical (thankfully capable jumpers) rectangles, that I found annoying since you have to move essentially the same character across an area five times. Other than those annoyances, Thomas Was Alone is enjoyable throughout. The constant introduction of new characters and switches between puzzle and platforming emphasizing levels stop the game for ever getting boring.
The levels in Thomas Was Alone are not very long, but you get a good amount, with 110 levels. Even with that amount, the not terribly high difficulty level means completing the game will only take 3-4 hours. While there are no secrets or higher difficulty settings, the game and story are quite enjoyable, giving the game some replay. The story is told during gameplay without feeling intrusive, so none of the short length is taken up by padding. The graphics and music fit the abstract and digital world very well, although there isn’t much variety in the settings. The only voice acting comes from the narrator, but his voice acting is very well done and adds to the game’s humor.
While there are a few parts of the game that feel less polished than others and I was left wanting a little more content, Thomas Was Alone is a great and consistently creative and enjoyable game. The graphical minimalism hides a deep and satisfying story and gameplay experience. Anyone who likes puzzle platformers or dry humor should definitely look into Thomas Was Alone, these rectangles have earned their return to gaming.