Developer: Mike Bithell and Bossa Studios
Price: $8.99
Version Reviewed: 1.1
Device Reviewed On: iPad Mini Retina

Graphics / Sound Rating: ★★★★★
Controls Rating: ★★★★☆
Gameplay Rating: ★★★★★
Replay Value Rating: ★★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Writing is often one of the things in video games that suffers. Especially given the era of independent developers, small teams require wunderkinds who, after knowing how to design, code, and quantify the game’s artistic elements, might not have the time or ability to ensure a game is written well. Thankfully Thomas Was Alone, created by Mike Bithell, is one of the few games that has a key focus on writing. It’s a platformer, and never not about the platforming, but the game does a great job of creating a world defined so little by what players see, but what they’re told, in a way that feels clever and involving.

ThomasWasAlone-5Players control a group of squares thrust into a labyrinth – starting with Thomas, who meets other rectangles like John, Laura, and Claire, all with their own sizes, and properties that can help each other. That’s where the challenge and cleverness of play comes in: the platforming is familiar, but having to switch between several characters, using their different properties to get to the goals, can be a mental workout. It requires knowing the characters, and knowing when to move them out of the way, or have one on top of another, or whatever is necessary to get them all to their own goals in each of the 100 levels. And the game keeps throwing in new wrinkles all throughout the process. It’s fantastic.

The rectangles are all characterized solely through narration, giving them personality and defining their emotions and motivations for why they’re continuing onward. While the action and levels do tie in to the narrative, it’s still to a degree independent to what is happening. One can play the game without necessarily worrying about the story, but why? The purpose of the narration is to make players care about rectangles by giving them names and stories for why they’re jumping around. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience.

ThomasWasAlone-8The controls are simple to where players just have movement arrows, a jump button, and the character switching icons. I like having the individual switching buttons versus using, say, the shoulder buttons on a controller to switch between characters. The buttons for character-switching should be a bit larger: they feel a bit difficult to trigger. There’s gamepad support, but it doesn’t work quite right: button inputs seem to be delayed by long enough to make it impossible to use. Of course, this is something that can be fixed.

While the controls put a bit of damper on Thomas Was Alone, this is still a fantastic game to be enjoyed on an iPad, and well worth playing because it’s clever in not just how it plays, but how it’s written.

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