Review: Thomas Was Alone (Switch)

Get ready to meet your new favorite rectangles; a fun platformer with a memorable, endearing cast.

By Achi Ikeda. Posted 05/12/2021 22:23 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Wonderful story and characterization
Poison Mushroom for...
A couple levels that are significantly more challenge than the others

Editor’s Note: This article was erroneously credited to EiC Robert Marrujo. The piece has been corrected to acknowledge the actual writer, Achi Ikeda. The original piece is below. We apologize for the error.

The 2010s was another great decade in gaming. It kicked off with such games as Heavy Rain, Red Dead Redemption, Super Mario Galaxy 2, and Rocky Band 3. The 2010s was also easily the best decade ever for indie games. Kickstarting it off in 2010 was Super Meat Boy and Limbo. In the years to come, gamers were introduced to Minecraft, Journey, Gone Home, Stardew Valley, Undertale, Hollow Knight and Cuphead, just to name a few. Before 2010, indies were still very much underground. There were a few indie successes such as Cave Story and Braid (and Minecraft, which actually got a head start and huge success as an early access game), but nothing like the success of the current indie hits. As indie games become more mainstream, developers began to gain attention and were even highlighted in the 2012 documentary Indie Game: The Movie which featured the developers of Super Meat Boy, Braid, and Fez. 2012 was also the first year I played Thomas Was Alone.

Now, I am admittedly a bit biased, but Thomas Was Alone was the first indie game I played that drew me into the potential of indies. I consider Thomas Was Alone to be one of the more important indie games of the 2010s because of what it brought to gaming. Thomas Was Alone told a unique story and demonstrated that by cleverly demonstrating how working only with what you have, you can still make a fantastic game.

So how does the game hold up over ten years after its original release? Thomas Was Alone was originally launched as a browser game in 2010. Though it began as a browser title, it has since been released on PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and Vita, as well as Xbox One, Wii U, mobile devices, and now Nintendo Switch. It is significantly easier to review an over ten-year-old game that I first played nine years ago compared to games that have just released. Therefore, I will not only be reviewing the game itself, but also how well it preforms on Switch, and how well the game has held up.

If you haven’t played it, Thomas Was Alone is simply described as a puzzle platformer. For the most part, the platforming doesn’t offer much challenge but the game remains interesting thanks to the brilliant story by Mike Bithell and the fantastic narration by Danny Wallace, who won the game a BAFTA for his performance. The story centers on Thomas, a red rectangle, and the friends he makes throughout the game. Despite the cast being made up of quadrilaterals, they are some of the most memorable characters I’ve ever met in a game. Throughout their journey, they learn the importance of friendship, teamwork, discovery, and sacrifice. That may sound a little dramatic and a bit corny for a game about two-dimensional shapes but don’t knock it till you try it.

I finished the entire game in handheld over the course of a couple days. Thomas Was Alone is short — if this isn’t your first or second platformer, you’re likely to finish the game within a couple or so hours. The platforming is balanced between being not that challenging but not ridiculously easy, either. It never gets flat out boring thanks to the narration and character dialogue by Wallace and, though there are a couple levels that may give you some more trouble than others, you’re unlikely to rage quit over them. I enjoyed the creative use of controlling the different characters in each level. This aspect of the game is best described as a single player co-op puzzle game. You can only control one rectangle at a time, but each works together to get everyone to their respective exit portal.

Every character has a unique shape, color, and ability that helps get them all through levels. John can jump ridiculously high, whereas Chris uses his short stature to reach areas the others can’t fit. It’s through cooperation and relying on each other that these rectangles can make it to each exit while also bonding to form “the gang.” Despite the game’s minimalistic visuals, each rectangle feels like a distinct character. That’s thanks to the wonderful writing.

The narrative is really where the game stands out. The platforming can be fun, but you play Thomas Was Alone for the story. The story is told through a combination of narration, character dialogue, and fictional newspaper clippings and quotes from commentators every ten chapters. These quotes center around “The Event” and help players get a grasp of the bigger picture — Thomas is the first ever self-aware artificial intelligence.

Thomas starts out alone, but eventually forms the gang with several other self-aware A.I. shapes. Each character, along with their physical strengths and weaknesses, has internal conflicts that are resolved thanks to the help of others. Chris is self-conscious, grumpy, and cynical, but comes to love and appreciate his friends. John, who is boastful and a bit condescending, is later humbled and learns compassion. Don’t worry, the story mainly centers on artificial intelligence, but I wont spoil it.

What draws many of us to the science fiction genre is how well science fiction can act as a lens to humanity. It can be used to zoom in on specific traits, zoom out to see a bigger picture, or even act as a mirror. Fans of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, or George Orwell will likely agree. Though it is brash and naïve of me to compare Bithell to these legends, Bithell is still able to use the science fiction genre to make his audience question artificial intelligence and ruminate on consciousness. The game is short, the character are colored rectangles, but the story lingers in your mind long after finishing the game.

Luckily, for those wanting more, the Switch version comes with the “Benjamin’s Flight” additional level pack. The pack doesn’t add anything too substantial to the story. It does at least give one of the rectangles, Sarah, more backstory before she encounters Thomas and the gang.

The final aspect of the game deserving some love is the soundtrack. The score, by David Housden, was nominated for a BAFTA. Though it’s not as catchy as tunes from Zelda or Mario, it perfectly manufactures an atmosphere for the story. It combines electronic and instrumental sounds to mesh the A.I. setting with the game’s emotional themes.

So how does Thomas Was Alone hold up today? Well, it’s excellent, thank you for asking. I recommend it to anyone interested in trying out a bit of indie gaming history, any fan of the science fiction genre, anyone who enjoys platformers, for those who enjoy short, sweet stories, and to everyone looking to see how anyone could make a bunch of rectangles a memorable part of my adolescence.

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