A Virus Named TOM. What a strange name for a video game. Maybe I’m just to used to names like Painkiller, Max Payne, Dead Space, you get the drift, but A Virus Named TOM immediately grabbed my attention with its odd title. You’d be forgiven if you weren’t exactly sure what to expect when you read that one in the Steam New Releases list. However, as they say, a rose by any other name is just as sweet. This game could have just as easily been called DeathKiller 3000, yet it wouldn’t change the game in the package. It wouldn’t make sense though. But it’s not my job to waffle on (actually, it kind of is), so let’s get to the meat of the review.
Here we have a fresh entry into the action-puzzle genre. What do I mean by that, you ask? Well, it’s a puzzle game, but it’s not one in which you’ll bide your time, searching for the most elegant answer by turning cogs in your brain. A Virus Named TOM demands both mental and physical agility, as you’re pushed to find the most elegant solution in the least amount of time possible. You play as “TOM” (I don’t think this stands for anything, but I haven’t watched the opening cinematic for a while – it might). TOM is a virus created by mad scientist Dr. X, who, after creating such society-changing inventions such as moving sidewalks (scarily accurate) and dogs that don’t defecate, was fired from the company he had built from the ground up as his ideas were becoming a little… violent. To take revenge on the city he had essentially created, Dr. X unleashes a virus named TOM into the city’s vital computer systems.
Here’s where you step in. It’s your duty to control TOM as he weaves his way through the pipes of the city’s networks, rotating various pieces of the puzzle to let the virus flow like water through pipes. Actually, if you can imagine those piping games where you have to fit various pieces of plumbing into a grid to allow water to flow, that’s very similar to the gameplay in A Virus Named TOM, except here you can only rotate the pieces, not swap or move them. Levels quickly become more complex – the most simplistic map involves just rotating pieces to line up and form a continuous pipe such that every activated square has the virus running through it, however the difficulty increases rather quickly. Soon, you’ll be expected to dodge a sometimes ridiculous number of anti-virus bugs, compete with squares that cover up their identity if they’ve not got the virus flowing through them, struggle to pick up extra energy as your life bar constantly edges towards failure, and cautiously keep your virus away from red anti-virus strains that will force you to restart the level. While it might start off a little tame, new concepts are introduced gradually so as to not overwhelm you, but if you’re after a test of your reflexes and ability to observe everything on the screen at any one time then A Virus Named TOM is the game for you.
The only problem with this is that any game that relies so heavily on reflexes is inherently dependent on the quality of the controls. They have to be as smooth as margarine, as crisp as the air on a summer morning, as responsive as… something responsive. In short, they have to be good. You don’t want the player to have any reason to blame the controls for their repeated failures. Following in the footsteps of its reflex-heavy predecessors (Super Meat Boy), Misfits Attic recommends that the player use a gamepad rather than a keyboard to direct TOM around the computer networks.
I’m not particularly moaning about it, but the keyboard setup definitely lacks the required responsiveness – TOM seems to react just a split second after a button press, and isn’t all that great when it comes to maneuvering through bugs and going for that gold medal. The former issue is addressed on plugging in a controller, but even using the developer’s recommended input method there’s still a disappointing lack of responsiveness when it comes to weaving your character through the pipe grid. This will seldom cause TOM to run into an enemy bug, but rather will become a nuisance as you try to shave your time for a certain level – when you get to the point where one wrong move is the difference between success and restarting, you’re going to be doing a lot of restarting, and it’ll be too often due to frustration with the controls. Fixed controls and poor resolution options also seem to try their hardest to hamper your time with A Virus Named TOM – if your monitor is any bigger than about 1280 across, you’ll be better off playing in windowed mode as there’s a point at which the cutscenes run sluggish and the screen area becomes windowboxed. Forget trying to map the controls to better suit your playstyle. Personally, I would’ve liked to swap the keys for dropping glitches and turning grid pieces, but alas, it was not to be.
A nice feature, and one we don’t seem to see enough in puzzle games these days, is the addition of both a co-op campaign and versus mode. I would love to say that I had a grand time playing both of these modes, but alas, the lack of any online support essentially drags a potentially terrific feature down to what is destined to become the seldom-used feature on an otherwise rather fun game. Versus mode is sort of like a multiplayer version of Qix, with the addition of features from the single-player campaign such as a grid-map and glitches. It’s nice to see a spark of creativity in this gametype, but the unforgivable lack of online play reduces it to redundancy. Split-screen is nice, but I’m not about to go to the effort to cram myself and three friends behind my desk for a couple of rounds of either of the multiplayer modes on offer, despite the attempt at redemption by successfully allowing 4-player games (two on the keyboard, two on gamepads). I’m one of those people who moans about the gradual death of split-screen multiplayer in video games, but I’ll never whinge if it finds its way into the PC graveyard – split-screen is a feature that should remain firmly in the console arena, and even if it does make its way to the personal computer, it should never, ever be as the only way to play multiplayer. (update: in an email from a representative of Misfits Attic dated June 12th, I was told “local only for now unfortunately” – if online is implemented in a future update, I’ll be sure to change my review accordingly.)
One thing I am going to blab on about is the story. How often do you expect a high quality, cutscene-driven plot in a puzzle game, much less one that actually makes sense? A Virus Names TOM follows the premise that each stage (comprised of 10 levels) represents hacking into and subsequently disabling a certain invention of Dr. X’s. For example, disabling the moving footpath will result in watching a businessman strain to reach the handle to his building’s door as he cannot take just a couple of steps of his own accord, and disabling the holo-suit sees a happy, attractive couple instantly turn into two less-than-average looking people, who, with one glance at each other, seem betrayed that their partner was lying to them all along. The cutscenes employ a paper-cutout style reminiscent of the Jetsons, which run smoothly and cleverly express the comic side of the bleak outlook on the future presented by the game – as a vendetta holder against escalators, the moving sidewalks got an excellently grim chuckle from me. But A Virus Named TOM is a puzzle game – regardless of the crisp sugar coating, more essential is its ability to stand up as a puzzler purely on the strength of its puzzles.
A Virus Named TOM is a novel little pipe-rotating action puzzler that manages to emphasize both parts of that term. Its medal system emphasises replayability in a game that would otherwise likely end up having its local files deleted from my computer after I’ve completed it. Action enthusiasts – and by action, I mean fast-thumbs kind of action, not Uncharted action – will find something to love in completing puzzles in the minimum amount of time while testing their reflexes against evil spider-bug-things. Puzzle enthusiasts will especially appreciate the final couple of stages, at which point even the most acquainted of puzzle gamer will find themselves nail-less, having unconsciously bitten them as they struggle to come up with a solution while constantly on the move. A Virus Named TOM is a well-crafted, enjoyable puzzle game, further enhanced by one of the best plots in any puzzler I’ve ever played. Despite the disappointing lack of online support, it’s worth the purchase price for single player alone. Yeah, it’s not all that original – I’ve been playing variations of pipe-moving games for as long as I can remember – but when it’s all wrapped up in the gold foil that is fantastic aesthetics and rather good quality humour, it seems as fresh as a freshly picked cucumber.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of A Virus Named TOM by Misfits Attic.