Shapes on a plane

The culprit: Thomas Was Alone (PC via Steam, Mac, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U)

Who would have thought that a 2D platformer about bouncing squares and rectangles could produce relatable characters? And yet, Thomas Was Alone demonstrates that this is, in fact, possible. Deceptively simple in its controls and gameplay, the game gradually draws you in and makes you genuinely care about the fate of its geometrical protagonists, all the while spinning out a surprisingly elaborate storyline.

The game takes place within a computer system, where several A.I.s have become self-aware as the result of an unexplained event. None of the characters can speak, but there is an omniscient narrator (the same VA who voiced Shaun in the Assassin’s Creed series), who describes the main events, as well as each character’s personality. It’s a lot more charming than it sounds, and the narrator plays a huge part in making the cast relatable. The titular Thomas is the first one you encounter: a red rectangle, described as being curious, observant and a compulsive note-taker. At the outset, he is, indeed, alone (it’s actually his first independent thought). But he eventually encounters Chris, a grumpy, pessimistic orange square; John, a tall, haughty yellow rectangle; Claire, a jovial, large blue square who believes she’s a superhero; and Laura, a long pink rectangle who is wary of being used by others and is also followed by a strange dark cloud. Which doesn’t prevent Chris from developing a crush on her. Yes, there is even a geometrical figure romance.

Thomas, Chris, John, Claire and Laura form the initial team. Then they get separated, and Thomas meets up with two more characters: James, who looks like a green version of Thomas and is afraid of being bullied; and Sarah, a very small purple rectangle who has had her own adventure before. Then, the final chapter of the game introduces a second generation of A.I.s, who are all different (not 50, thankfully) shades of grey: the aptly-named, devious Grey, who is steel-grey and shaped like John; cautious Jo, who is dark grey and looks like Thomas; her more adventurous partner, Sam, who is very light grey and looks like Chris; Paul, who is a small, khaki-grey rectangle, older and more perceptive than the others; and Team Jump, a group of five tiny steel-grey squares who always act as a team. Sarah’s previous adventure also gets explored in a prequel DLC called Benjamin’s Flight, which introduces two more characters, who are prototype A.I.s that existed before Thomas: the eponymous Benjamin, a small green square who likes sandwiches and inherits a jetpack from his father, and Anna, a recalcitrant long blue rectangle, similar to Laura.

Each character besides Thomas has its own quirks. Chris is short enough to fit into small spaces, but his jumping skills are rather pitiful. John, on the other hand, can jump very high. Claire can float and ferry other characters across water on her ‘back’. Laura can serve as a trampoline for other characters, hence her fear of being used. James can jump upwards instead of downwards. Sarah can both fit into small spaces and double-jump. Benjamin can fly, courtesy of his jetpack. And Anna is better at jumping than Laura, although she doesn’t share her trampoline properties.

The second-generation characters behave like their lookalikes (except for Paul, who doesn’t have a first-generation counterpart), but can temporarily change that by using Shifters. These look like striped coloured blocks and grant any second-generation character that passes through them the abilities of the first-generation character of the corresponding colour, visually indicated by patterns of the corresponding colour appearing on the character. For example, if Jo passes through a blue Shifter, she will acquire a blue C-shaped pattern and be able to float, like Claire. Grey will get two coloured stripes, while Sam will only get one, Paul will get a horizontal C, and Team Jump will get spike-like shapes. A grey Shifter will return the character to their default state (including removing the coloured patterns).

The game is subdivided into ten levels, each further subdivided into ten short stages, for a grand total of 100 stages. You can be controlling anywhere from one to five characters within a given level, and you can switch between them freely to solve the various puzzles. The selection bar appears at the bottom right of the screen. The goal is to use each character’s unique ability to help the team traverse the levels, until they find portals, which look like white outlines of each character. This showcases the game’s theme of teamwork bringing out the best of each individual member. There are also 20 ‘pickups’ scattered throughout the levels, which look like little black squares. Collecting all of them awards an achievement, just for a little something extra to do.

There are negatives, of course. First, while the game doesn’t overstay its welcome, it can get a little repetitive towards the end. The gameplay is also fairly simplistic, and while each character has their own gimmick, they’re very easy to master, so people who like challenging gameplay mechanics might feel somewhat short-changed. I also thought there were a few characters too many, with the result that some felt redundant. In fact, all of the second-generation characters felt a bit tacked-on. Making geometric shapes personable isn’t an easy task, so it’s important that they a) are easily recognisable and b) have sufficient screen-time for players to get used to them, both of which happens with the first gen, but not the second. They may be different shapes, but they’re all varying shades of grey or taking on other characters’ colours, which doesn’t do much for their individuality. They also get a lot less screen-time, making them even harder to distinguish. There *is* a valid storyline reason for introducing them, it’s just that it could have been handled better. Maybe by splitting the game-time more evenly between the two generations. Or maybe by having fewer second-gen characters; Team Jump, for example, came across as somewhat expendable, even if they were cute and introduced an interesting gameplay mechanic.

Overall, though, this is an original concept and an interesting, good-humoured way to tell a story about A.I. gaining sentience, as opposed to the usual “evil robots will kill us all” approach. It won’t be winning any Game of the Year awards, but it’s a fun and quirky experience for people who like their games a bit off the beaten track.

A-faffin’s Creed

The culprit: Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC and Mac via Steam)

*sigh* Here we go again…As I don’t particularly like Ezio, I already felt that Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was one Ezio game too many in the series. So why did I decide to play Revelations, you may ask? It was advertised as featuring sequences with Altaïr. I also wanted to put this part of the saga to rest once and for all.

The story picks up right where Brotherhood left off. Having dispatched Cesare Borgia, Ezio discovers a letter from his late father informing him that Altaïr had a secret library in Masyaf housing all of his accumulated knowledge. So off to Masyaf Ezio goes, gets into some trouble with the Templars, but escapes and learns that he needs five seals to be able to access the library. The seals are located in Constantinople, so Ezio’s next jaunt is to Turkey. There he meets up with the local Assassin branch, stumbles into a war of succession for the throne…and finds love with a business-savvy Venetian bookseller called Sophia. Because him finding love with a Turkish lady would’ve somehow been less plausible than there conveniently being an attractive single Italian woman running a successful business in Ottoman Constantinople?

If that sounds like a flimsy excuse for a story, it’s because it is. Brotherhood already felt like filler, but at least it was a direct consequence of the second game’s plot and stuff, y’know, happened in it, mostly courtesy of Cesare. Revelations, however, is completely tangential. Sure, the Templars just so happen to also be involved in the war of succession in Constantinople, but it’s not like Ezio knew about it beforehand or specifically went there to prevent it. It sort of just happens in the background while he, once again, does what he does best: faffing about. Heck, even the love story is dull, as Ezio and Sophia have zero chemistry between them. Fortunately, however, I’m happy to report that the series continues its trend of great supporting characters by introducing us to Yusuf, the charismatic, roguish (and very easy on the eyes) leader of the Turkish Assassins. From his infamous first greeting to Ezio, he stole the show and was the game’s main highlight to me. I was more interested in what happened to him than in anything Ezio got involved in, with the notable exception of the episode where they had to pose as minstrels to infiltrate Topkapi Palace, and Ezio hilariously imitated the nonsense-singing minstrels from Assassin’s Creed II (e.g. “I sing in Italiano,/You understand no word,/But my Greek is non-existent,/And my Turkish is absurd.”). Unfortunately, Ezio’s proclivity for colossal cockups had also not diminished between games and made me very angry at him by the end of the story.

Every time Ezio finds a seal for the Masyaf library, he experiences a vision of Altaïr’s life, as the seals somehow have his memories imprinted on them. Unfortunately, those sequences turned out to be pitifully short and far between, a far cry from what I was expecting, even given the fact that Ezio is the main protagonist. Perhaps the developers didn’t like Altaïr very much? But then why make the “dual storyline” your main advertising hook? Heck, I’m pretty sure you spend more time with Desmond than you do with Altaïr in this game.

Because yes, Desmond’s story continues, thanks to the shocker ending that they gave him in Brotherhood. He is now comatose and stuck inside the Animus. There, he meets the consciousness of Clay, Subject 16, who tells him that he has to put his mind back together to be able to wake up. That’s achieved through weird first-person puzzle platforming sections in featureless minimalistic environments, which can be thoroughly frustrating and felt decidedly odd by comparison with the main storyline. It’s like you’re in a different game altogether, and a boring one at that.

In terms of gameplay, the series continues its trend of building on existing bases. Many things are retained from Brotherhood, such as the kill streaks, which enable Ezio to plough through his opposition with ease. The full synchronisation requirements for missions are also still here: achieving Ezio’s goal is not enough on its own, you have to perform an additional requirement, such as not being seen, or not falling into water, for example. As the game takes place outside Europe, the Courtesans have been replaced by Romanies, but they serve the same purpose of distracting potential targets. Other than that, each helper guild (Romanies, Thieves and Mercenaries) still has its own set of (pointless) challenges that Ezio can perform for additional rewards. Parachutes are still around as well. You also (unfortunately) spend most of the game in Constantinople, just as you spent most of Brotherhood in Rome. Not that I dislike Constantinople, but I was starting to miss the variety of the first two games by this point. Multiplayer is also still a thing, but I was still completely uninterested in it.

Then there are things that have been expanded upon. For some reason, bombs seem to be this game’s favourite weapon, as there are loads of different varieties on offer. The in-game explanation is that the Turkish Assassins have just discovered gunpowder. Yusuf also upgrades one of Ezio’s hidden blades into a hook. Thus, the hookblade. With which he can travel along ziplines to get around faster. Or hook onto targets and flip over them. Or use it to destroy merchants’ stalls to create obstructions for pursuers. Nevermind the fact that having a hook instead of a blade is completely inconvenient for an Assassin’s main activity: stabbing.

Assassin recruitment is also still a major feature and has been expanded upon in several ways. First of all, there are six unique recruits with their own short backstories, on top of the more generic ones. You can now also participate in Mediterranean Defence, which involves sending recruits to different cities around the Mediterranean to establish bases there, rather than simply perform missions, although each city requires an Assassin proficient in a specific weapon type as its branch’s founding member. Then you have the Templar Dens. Much like in Brotherhood, once Ezio arrives in Constantinople, he takes it upon himself to liberate it from Templar influence, which requires clearing out Templar strongholds. These then become Assassin Dens, but until the recruits you put in charge of these become Master Assassins, they’re vulnerable to Templar attacks if Ezio’s notoriety rises too high. You must then participate in a tower defence minigame to protect them. As someone who takes great care with notoriety, my experience of Den Defence was very limited, because I only ever did four, and of those the first one was compulsory, and the three others were required to fulfill a guild challenge.

Ultimately, I can only describe this as “Ezio’s Big Faffabout: The Game”. The war of succession storyline is dull, Ezio’s main objective is pointless (especially given the ending), Desmond’s sequences are jarringly out of place, and there’s not even a memorable villain to salvage proceedings. If what you enjoy the most about the AC series is the gameplay and combat, you probably won’t mind all that much, but it’s not all that different from Brotherhood, which is the better game of the two. As for me, I came for Altaïr and stayed for Yusuf, so to speak. Other than that, utterly forgettable. Unless you’re a big Ezio fan or a completionist, don’t throw your money away.