Reaching a decision about A Virus Named Tom has been difficult. Its a title with hints of nuance, and fairly entertaining gameplay, but absolutely no reason for me to get excited. And that makes reviewing it hard.
A Virus named Tom is the creation of Misfits Attic, an independent US developer and husband and wife team. It's an action-puzzle title that has been developed for the PC, but looks ripe for porting onto consoles (and the PC version I played even had console cues built into it).
A pretty simple title, there are no flashy animations or fancy lighting effects here. The game follows the story of Doctor X, a crazy old coot who is banished from his futuristic city for getting a bit carried away with its gadgets. To get his revenge, he designs and creates Tom - a virus that is sent off to infect all of the technology that he helped create.
The story is told in a slideshow style, with reasonable voice overs and some quirky one liners (for a fleeting second it brought back memories of some of the adventure titles of old, like Dawn of the Tentacle, but without the humour.) But that second didn’t last very long. A Virus Named Tom’s writing is bog standard, and while it does make a solid attempt to keep players engaged, it doesn't quite have enough oomph behind it to make you sit up and take notice.
But it's an action-puzzle game, not Tolkien. It was never going to have reams of dialogue or intricate plot twists, so it can be forgiven for being a little light on the wordsmithery. The title's core business is in its gameplay, and it's typical of the genre.
You control Tom, as he sets about infecting the robot dogs, teleports, and other futuristic toys that the good citizens rely on. He does this by rearranging circuitry, to enable his virus to flow. The only way to do this is to race Tom around around a grid, turning each piece as he passes. It's not every original, and at its core it is basically the same type of gameplay that first-person shooter players grumbled about when they had to hack devices in Bioshock.
Tom’s progression, too, is borrowed from genre tropes we’ve seen in the past. Each puzzle forms part of a stage, where Tom needs to progressively infect different parts of the devices Doctor X has told him to sabotage. Once he’s done, he moves onto the next one. It’s a technique that does give you an incentive to keep on grinding, but its hardly genre defining stuff.
There are, however, a few embellishments that build on the game’s experience. Over time, harder modes are introduced which do increase the title’s difficulty. For example, early on the city fights back by introducing critters onto the grid that Tom can’t touch. Other challenges include stages where Tom can't see the pieces he needs to rotate until they are connected to the virus in the right way.
These add-ons are interesting, and they do provide players with variety, but they are touch ups on a style of core gameplay that is neither creative or inspiring. Misfit Attics can’t be faulted too much for this though, because I don’t think they were trying to reinvent the wheel - but perhaps thats half of a Virus Named Tom’s problem. Action-puzzle gaming has already got a lot of very fancy wheels.
It’s hard for me to put my finger on exactly why I don’t particularly like A Virus Named Tom. Perhaps it’s the way the ubiquitous narrative is brushed over the top of the gameplay, like a sloppy veneer. Maybe it’s the lack of intensity or progression that makes you blasé about playing any further. Or perhaps it's just a style of adventure puzzle gameplay that seems to only really have a future on facebook flash apps, or as one dollar downloads on tablet devices.
I don’t know. I’m not really sure. If you look hard enough A Virus Named Tom has glimpses of charm, but it does little to claim that it is anything more than just a way to pass the time.
A Virus Named Tom is available now from Steam, where it will set you back US$9.99