Thomas Was Alone review: Mastering the inverted fall

On the surface, Thomas Was Alone appears unremarkable. It breaks platforming mechanics down to their most basic levels, quite literally, replacing characters with colored rectangles and environments with precarious arrangements of black rectangles. To reiterate: Thomas Was Alone is a platformer starring a cast of little, colored blocks.

What's amazing is that, thanks to the a tiny injection of story and a bit of good writing, you may actually start to care about them.%Gallery-187303%

Thomas is a small, red rectangle. He also happens to be a very inquisitive rectangle, a fact that exemplifies everything that makes Thomas Was Alone special. But we'll get to that in a little bit.

Mechanically, Thomas Was Alone couldn't be much simpler. At the beginning, you control Thomas, sliding in two dimensions and jumping over abstract obstacles and pits filled with toxic water. Thomas is quickly joined by other quadrilaterals of different shapes, sizes and abilities. A tall, skinny yellow one can jump amazing distances. A short, flat pink one can bounce others like a trampoline. A large, blue square can float in water.

Together, the group must traverse each level, clear its obstacles and reach the designated exit portals. These portals are shaped precisely the same way as each of our heroes, and the challenge arises from figuring out how (and in some cases when) to get everyone to their specific exit. Usually, this requires switching between each character and using their unique abilities. Thomas might jump on top of the tall, skinny rectangle, using it as a platform to reach a higher area. The pink rectangle might slide onto the blue square, which can then ferry it across dangerous waters.

Barring a few gravity-bending levels, most of the challenges aren't terribly taxing. Eventually, you learn the tricks and relationships between your platforming polygons. This one is a stepping stone for that one. This one can fit into spaces the others can't. There's pleasure to be had in perfecting tricky jumps, and the controls are precise enough to allow it but, again, by itself the platforming is unremarkable. It's nothing most players haven't seen in other games, and on top of that it's stripped of the aesthetics that make other games stand out. These aren't plumbers or hedgehogs or bionic commandos. They're just rectangles given the barest amount of visual distinction.

And that's where the narrator comes in. Doling out the sort of nimble, funny commentary that would be right at home in a Douglas Adams novel, the narrator transforms a minimalistic, streamlined platformer into a story about artificial intelligences struggling to escape the confines of their program. Delightfully voiced by Danny Wallace, the narrator speaks from each character's perspective throughout the game. This all begins with Thomas' inquisitive nature. As Thomas slides across the first levels, the narrator catalogs the red rectangle's observations. He notices he's wonderful at falling, for example. Upon encountering his first vertical obstacle, Thomas ponders how to overcome it, realizing he can't fall past it. Based on his previous observations, an "inverted fall" is the obvious answer. Thomas has learned to jump.

Taken at face value, each of these little colored rectangles has about as much personality as a piece of confetti. Taken together and coupled with the clever narration, actual characters begin to emerge. It's like the difference between that single piece of confetti and a handful – what was once ordinary and plain becomes interesting, bright and cheerful. That's not a flat, pink rectangle. It's Laura, and she has a secret. That tiny, orange square is Chris. He can't jump very high, and he constantly wrestles with feelings of inferiority. He's untrusting, grumpy, passive-aggressive and, in case you missed it, he's a tiny, orange square.

But now he has motives, and I swear I can see them in action as he slides across levels. I feel a smidgeon of pride as Chris navigates a tunnel too small for the others, and I imagine he does too. This personification turns what could have been a well-executed but forgettable game into a real adventure. These characters have a purpose, and I'm compelled to see where the story goes.

It might be foolish of me to put so much emphasis on the story of Thomas Was Alone. Admittedly, the platforming mechanics occasionally feel too simple for their own good, but the narrative and gameplay weave together so seamlessly that the game becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Its little blocks have heart, and that gave me a reason to see things through to the end. If you're a fan of the inverted fall, don't miss it.

This review is based on a PSN download of the PlayStation 3 version of Thomas Was Alone, provided by Sony. Thomas Was Alone is also available on Vita, Mac and PC.

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