We're in the middle of one of the most diverse, intriguing periods in video game history. The rise of download games, small 'indie' developers and stores like the Wii U eShop have shifted how we think about content; we're a long way from the retail-only culture of the '90s or even early 2000s. One modern trend is for low-fi experiences that are simple aesthetically and in concept, yet in the case of the eShop can also often be mediocre-to-poor efforts from those aiming for a quick buck while learning on the job. Thomas Was Alone, first released over two years ago, is the product of Mike Bithell's efforts to develop his skills, utilise hard-earned contacts and to deliver a clear vision for a game. It's a definitive example of how to take a simple approach and deliver a wonderful experience, and an example to those still taking early steps in the world of development.
Visually, Thomas Was Alone utilises relatively simple effects of the Unity engine. The cast — including lead rectangle Thomas — are a diverse group of shapes that move with the left stick and jump with A or B. The stages are split across a number of scenarios with varying backdrops and mechanics, yet it's a minimalist style that can — nevertheless — be rather striking.
Simple visuals and shapes as characters may not sound like the building blocks for a memorable experience, yet it delivers. British comedian and actor Danny Wallace provides narration throughout, sharing the thoughts and perspectives of a growing cast. Thomas is a selfless hero, but we're also joined by a slightly dour orange square called Chris that finds purpose in love, a borderline delusional blue square called Claire that thinks in terms of drama and heroism above all else, plus many more. The script evolves wonderfully, beginning with the titled 'Thomas Was Alone' narrative before we see the various characters meet, co-operate and form friendships. Above all of this is an occasional villain and a storyline oblique in overall meaning yet, ultimately, driven by key themes of comradeship and loyalty.
We've led with the story as it is the real driving point of the experience. In terms of its genre this is a puzzle platformer, yet despite some challenging moments the vast majority of players will be able to get through the whole adventure, even if less-skilled gamers will see progress slow down towards the end. You're looking at 3-5 hours of content, then, which makes it perfect for some light gaming over a weekend at a reasonable price — it doesn't outstay its welcome.
The basic goal of each stage is to move each shape into their own portal, with multiple characters in play at once. Puzzles often require you to utilise different abilities, such as those that can float on water, defy gravity or even act as a springboard. We never felt particularly stretched, with some levels perhaps lacking a little edge as they allow you to follow an obvious and linear routine to success, while others offer more of a challenge. Switching colour-coded characters with L or R works just fine — or you can tap on the touch screen — though in later stages there are too many characters in play, in some cases without colours; though necessary for the storyline, these rare moments were the only real mis-step in the controls.
Overall, Thomas Was Alone does an excellent job of subtly teaching you how to play; it's done progressively through smart design and narrative cues, rather than unnecessary sign-posting. You learn to dodge water and spikes, naturally, while manoeuvring through various jumps and gaps often requires you to carefully stack and manipulate your characters.
That's truly it in terms of gameplay, yet such is the evident care in design and the quality infused in the project that we can't help but be impressed. The script gives these simple shapes charming characters, and the quest for freedom, friendship and acceptance portrays universal themes, regardless of whether you understand some of the technical phrases around the setting. Sound design also makes this a must for headphones, not just for the voiced narration but also the music, which combines bit-tune harmonies with a strong acoustic vibe.
As for the port itself, it's a simple affair. Aside from occasional and brief slowdown as a level's initial load completes it runs smoothly, while the colours and basic visuals are nice and sharp in 1080p on a TV. Though the sharpness and distinct colouring is dulled on the GamePad in off-screen play, it is an experience that also suits the smaller screen well.
Thomas Was Alone has been around for a good while, yet its impressive achievement of marrying simplicity with a detailed narrative remains as a stand-out. It's an experience that should be accessible for all Wii U owners, as it focuses on simple puzzles, clever twists and — above all — storytelling; it's never an overly difficult or challenging title. It seems strange to be immersed in the tale of geometric shapes, yet we formed a bond with each character. The Wii U eShop has a number of top-notch download games produced with care and passion; this belongs right up there in that elite group.