A Virus Named Tom Review
One of my favorite settings for a story is what I like to call the 50’s future. It’s that place where everything is much more advanced technologically than now but everything looks like it just crawled out of an old school New York construction site. It’s all put together with huge bolts, weird laser eyes and was designed off of something from a comic book. I love it. The design aesthetics of the past with some bullshit science from future. That’s where A Virus Named Tom takes place. A futuristic city with the design sensibilities of the past, and that’s probably my favorite thing about this game.
Set in the far off year when it takes place, a company called MegaTech is leading the charge into the future. They lead said charge because of Dr. X, an eccentric scientist who has created most of the company’s stuff. Robot dogs that don’t poop, hydrators for your food, teleporters, that treadmill sidewalk from The Jetsons. You name it, he made it. But one of his more questionable inventions is Globotron. After he cured walking with the sidewalk, he created Globotron to eradicate anyone found walking. The people at MegaTech didn’t much like this idea, saying it was unprofitable. So they fired his ass. He didn’t take it well. He created a virus that he calls Tom to go into all of his inventions that he made for the company and take them out one by one.
Like I said, the aesthetic is my favorite thing about this game. There are six stages to choose from, each with their own levels. To select a stage, you cycle through the billboards looking for the product you want to infect. All the billboards look like signs from the past, with really bizarre shapes to them all and neon arrows. I don’t know why, but I really like this look. If more signs and billboards looked like that today I would probably pay more attention to them. Also, behind all the billboards is a silhouette of the City of Tomorrow, which looks very similar to the Jetsons’ home. Very bizarrely designed buildings on the end of very skinny sticks that look like they could break at any second.
Each of the six stages is a product released by MegaTech with the final stage being the city itself. It’s your pretty standard future stuff that I listed above, but there was one that stood out to me. Something that I haven’t seen in a lot of future type stories. A holosuit. Keep in mind this is a commercial product. I guess they’ve done away with plastic surgery in the future because now you can just buy some Tron knockoff body suit and change yourself into whoever you want. On top of being my favorite product from the list, it also has my favorite win cinematic. Every time you complete a stage, a cinematic plays showing you the payoff to all your hard work. I won’t spoil any of them for you, but I find the holosuit the funniest.
But it’s not just that cinematic that’s funny. The game has a pretty good sense of humor. The cinematics that play when you win are all really funny, and one of them has a bizarrely dark joke to it. The jokes aren’t just saved for the cinematics, though. Every few stages when a new gameplay element is introduced you will get an email from the MegaTech IT department. Usually they are just pissed at you for infecting everything, but they’re always passive aggressive about everything. They just insult you or Dr. X in a non-direct way that is really funny. At a certain point, they start trying to use reverse psychology to trick Tom into screwing himself over or flat out lying to him, and just how poorly disguised those lies are gets pretty funny, too.
Well, I’m five paragraphs in, may as well talk about the gameplay. The entire game is played on a grid. Tom can only move from point to point along the lines of the grid. You move along this grid and rotate pieces of circuitry or something to spread the infecting throughout the grid. You have to infect the entire grid before your energy runs out, functioning as a timer. The faster you complete a level, the higher ranking you get. Completing a level with a high ranking gives you skip tokens that let you… well, skip levels. But you can complete a level relatively quickly and still lose energy because of the Drones, the only enemy in the game.
Drones are an anti-virus program that MegaTech developed, and they come in a variety of flavors. There’s your standard drone that move along one axis and do nothing special. There’s your infection drone that carry your infection in them and have to be smashed. There’s your indestructible drone that can’t be stopped or killed by anything. Finally there’s your hunter-killer drone that move similarly to Tom and head right for him the second he comes on to the grid. Each drone is color coated for convenience, and I like the insectoid look of the drones.
Your only means of defense are glitches, little mosaics that you drop on the grid in the path of drone that stops them dead in their tracks. If another drone collides with a glitches out drone they both explode, which is how you release the infection from the infection drones. But it’s not a good idea to just wipe out all the drones in a level. For one thing they respawn so they could come back with a weird timing and totally fuck you up but they also carry energy that you can use to refill your timer if you get close enough. But you need to get the timing right. I cannot tell you how many times I tried to get energy off a drone only to slam right into the side of a drone.
You’ll get plenty of practice getting the timing right, however, since a chunk of the puzzles are based around weaving your way through wave after wave of drone. Most of the puzzles focus solely on getting the infection spread throughout a complicated maze of circuitry while there may be a few drones there to refill your energy or just piss you off, but every once in a while you’ll get a puzzle where the solution is to literally turn one piece while maneuvering your way through dozens of drones. It can get a bit jarring. You’re just going along, solving these labyrinths of circuitry, when all of a sudden you are dodging your way through a group of drones running laps to turn one single piece. And it is so frustrating when you finally figure out the timing of it all, get to the piece, turn it, and then die while you’re waiting for the infection to spread.
Drones aren’t the only way MegaTech tries to stop you, though. They also mess around with the grid. In some levels all the pieces of circuitry are covered up so you can’t see what their design is until the infection is running through them. In some levels there are pieces that are locked in place so they can’t be rotated and you have to work around them. In some levels the infection can be sent across the grid through walls, so you can lead the infection to a wall and have come out on the opposite side of the grid. Then there are the red pieces. These pieces have a counter-infection in them. If your infection reaches one of these pieces before it spreads to everywhere else, you’re dead. Puzzles with just these elements are some of my favorites in the game.
But puzzles like that are few and far between later in the game, as a bunch of the elements I’ve just talked about get thrown into single levels. You can have a level where the pieces are covered, there are red pieces everywhere, you can send the infection through walls, and there are indestructible and infection drones running laps across the grid. From time to time it can get a bit overwhelming.
Especially in those timing puzzles with the movement controls being as they are. The movement is good, it’s just you can’t change direction mid movement. You have to come to a complete stop before you can move in a different direction. So you can be moving along at a nice pace and notice a drone coming right at you. But you held down that direction for a second too long and now you’re running headlong into a drone. I know it sounds like I don’t like the movement controls but I do. They work well for the game and every time something like I just described happens, it’s entirely on the player. You fucked up and got yourself killed. But I just can’t help my mind from thinking of other games that had much more fluid movement controls and I have to keep reminding myself that those movement controls wouldn’t work in this kind of game. The movement system they have set up works for the kind of game this is, but it still gets really frustrating when you try to change directions and realize your past the point of no return and it’s real easy to just blame it on the controls.
I’ve talked about everything else, now I may as well talk about Tom himself. A lot of work went into making him have some kind of reaction to things with no real dialogue. Whenever a drone starts getting close to Tom, you see his giant pupil constrict in fear and follow the drone as it passes by you. When you collect energy off of a drone, Tom gets a big smile on his face and his eye widens in joy. When you fuck up the timing and run right into the side of a drone, he lets out a robot scream and teleports to one of the corners. Once he reconstitutes, he has a scowl on his face, his eye is half closed in and staring at the player, and he starts mumbling to himself kind of like Yosemite Sam did whenever he messed something up.
But my biggest problem with the game is that I just didn’t feel like there was enough. There are over 50 levels, a multiplayer mode which I didn’t get the chance to check out, and a bunch of mechanics, so it isn’t in the technical area. We are given a glimpse into a world I find really interesting and I didn’t get enough. I know criticizing an indie game for not having enough of something is a real dick move, but I can’t help it. The stuff I saw was really good. I liked the cutscenes, I liked what little voice acting there was, and I like the look of everything. But I could’ve used more. More story so we get to see what kind of impact we’re having on the rest of the City of Tomorrow. More products, or at least some refreshing ones. The holosuit was my favorite because it was something we haven’t seen over and over and over. Well, that I haven’t seen anyway. I also would have liked some more story. We only get two real moments of story in the game at the beginning and end. Even if it was just some text screens, getting to see more of the world the developers created would have been great.
A Virus Named Tom is a great first game for Misfits Attic. The look of everything in the game is what sold me on it, but on top of the great look are some really clever puzzles. Even writing this review there are still some puzzles that I am completely stuck on. However, with the seemingly out of place timing based puzzles and the feeling of wanting more from the world of the game still hold it back for me. What they showed us of the world was great and the timing puzzles were good, too. But I didn’t get to see enough of the world to be satisfied and the timing puzzles didn’t feel right with the rest of the game.
I definitely recommend this game, though. What is there is great and I cannot wait to see what this developer comes out with next.
Final Score: 4/5
Thanks to Tim from Misfits Attic for sending me a review copy of this game. You can purchase A Virus Named Tom on Steam for $9.99.