Ah, a good ol’ pipe rearranger puzzle game, everyone knows how these work right? Either that, or I’m getting super old….. Okay, just to be sure, let’s break it down real quick: You’ve got this grid right, and on that grid there’s a ‘Source’ and an ‘Exit’, and your job is to placing (or just rotating in the case of this game) a variety of pipe segments that link the two together, usually to the pace of some terribly harsh time limit that’ll make you curse up a storm on more than one occasion.
A Virus Named Tom’s neat little twist on this age-old design is twofold: firstly, there’s no ‘Exit’ to link up with, instead you’re expected to connect ‘Source’ to every pipe piece on the grid in one continuous path. And secondly, to make that happen you’ve got to move your little virus dude (the titular Tom) around the grid while dodging the patrolling anti-virus ‘spiders’, each of whom can take a massive chunk out of your limited time upon contact and likely cause the aforementioned cursing.
Your only weapon against this anti-viral onslaught is the Glitch, a trap you can place on the grid that temporarily stuns the spiders, or even destroys them entirely should another spider be unfortunate enough to collide with ’em before the effect wears off. Early on that’s about as complicated as it gets, but over time further gameplay mechanics are introduced, such as hidden grid squares, immovable pipes and multiple ‘Sources’, that’ll force you to develop new approaches for each puzzle.
There is of course the customary whacky narrative holding this puzzler’s premise together: The contractually insane Dr X, creator of the Jetsons-esque sci-fi utopia “The City of Tomorrow”, seeks to use Tom to sabotage several of his greatest inventions, all as an act of vengeance against his former employers: the monolithic Mega-Tech Corporation! In all honesty, the storyline is wafer-thin and bares almost zero relevance to the actual gameplay. But still, l just couldn’t help but give the odd wry smile and occasional chuckle to every little comedy skit or angry email from the Mega-Tech executives. Without a doubt this game oozes with character and charm, a testament to what a small team can really do with limited resources and a bit o’ love.
But even without all that charisma backing it up, the excellent gameplay alone is more than capable of making this title worth talking about. While I would call anything about it particularly original, I simply can’t understate how extraordinarily well crafted each and every puzzle feels. Many are deceptively simple at first, but you’ll quickly discover they each require a hefty amount of logical thought as well as a good dose of dexterity to see them through. More importantly though, none of them ever felt overwhelming as such; the answer never seemed like some sort of impossibly out of reach goal. The solution was always there waiting for me just over the horizon, all I had to do was work/think my ass off to get to it!
I guess I could call it challenging, but I feel like the word “challenge” has become a bit of a dirty word thanks to the rise of (brilliant) hardcore Indies like Super Meat Boy, Dustforce and their many assorted kin. A Virus Named Tom ain’t like that, it isn’t shouting “YO, I BET YOU CAN’T DO THIS TOTALLY IMPOSSIBLE THING LOSER!” at your face every five seconds. No, it’s more like a gentle taunt of “Hey, I made this puzzle for you! Think you can beat it?”. I know that’s probably a very strange analogy to make, but it’s a good illustration of how jarring it feels to finally play an Indie game that doesn’t seem like it hates your guts.
Even at a stretch, I can only really find one issue that might present a problem when this thing exits Beta, and it’s an issue that just about every puzzle game ever has had to contend with: Longevity. While the game offers 50 excellent single player levels, bare in mind that the first 20 or so of those can be dusted off in one sitting, and the only replay value this game offers is a chance to redo each puzzle a bit faster than you did last time; not exactly my idea of fun. Although the 2-4 player co-op and competitive modes add another 50 or so levels on top of that (and are great fun to boot!) that lack of online compatibility severely limits how many people will even bother trying it. I mean really? Going ‘outside’ to someone else’s house? Who even does that anymore!
But at this point I feel like I’m just splitting hairs for the sake of it. Even as someone who’s not super keen on traditional puzzle games like this, I still found the Beta version of A Virus Named Tom extremely engaging, almost literally having to pry myself away from it so I could write this preview. For all intents and purposes it appears to be a highly entertaining title wrapped in a loveable aesthetic and executed with a degree of fineness that only in my wildest dreams could be considered a norm in the Indie scene. In short, If the current build I’ve been playing is anything to go by, the future for this game is very bright indeed.
A Virus Named Tom can currently be pre-ordered at a 50% discount ($5) via Steam or Desura, granting you instant access to the rather spiffy Beta build. ETA for the final version is Spring 2012 for the PC version and TBA for PS3/Mac/XBLA/Linux/OnLive.