You know the old adage: “Keep your profit margins close, but your mad scientists even closer.” It is disobeying this universal law of science fiction corporate empires which created a mind brilliant and malicious enough to attempt the destruction of everything good which he has brought to the world. A world which hinges on technology to stay convenient and luxurious should never be allowed to become susceptible to.. A Virus. That, dear readers, is exactly what this world has become.
In this single and multiplayer puzzle game, you do not control the aforementioned scientist, but his titular creation, A Virus Named TOM. Moving about in the more profitable inventions which you have designed for your ex-employer, you are on a revenge mission to bring down the corporation which had the gall to fire you. Deftly maneuvering TOM through the circuits of a robotic dog, a transporter beam, and other ubiquitous items of convenience, you spread your infection and make life generally miserable for the denizens of this Jetson’s-style world. You are literally raging against the machine.
The basic gameplay works like this: Rotate tiles to spread the glowing infection to every tile which can be rotated while avoiding obstacles and enemies. Simple right? Well for one thing no, this is not a simple thing to do and actually had me screaming at my screen during some of the more frustrating levels. This game evokes the feeling of urgency and gently lifts some gameplay mechanics from Pipe Dream for the NES, while also feeling a bit like Carcassonne by Rio Games. Yeah, that German board game about building a city by placing tiles on the table. In fact, I could see TOM being ported to board game format with a little tweaking of the rules. At any rate, you find yourself with a board full of mixed up circuitry and it is your job to rotate the blocks in order to create a clear path for your infection to travel through. You flip the tiles by skirting around them with TOM while holding down the action key. This allows you to sort of grab and lead the tile in either a clockwise or counter-clockwise fashion. There are also various hindrances which appear in a logically challenging way throughout the game. AI drones make their way on horizontal or vertical paths which get in your way and will destroy you if you touch them. These drones are normally avoidable by simply moving out of their way in time, though sometimes this is not the case. Sometimes there are walls of drones all moving in unison towards you. When this happens, your only defense is to lay a glitch and obstruct one or more of the drones. Once the drones touch it, they will be stunned for a few seconds, permanently breaking and creating a hole in their formation so that you can slip through. The drones are only one example of challenges that A Virus Named TOM will throw at you and there are lots of little tactical scenarios like this set up across the various levels of the game. These hindrances often include previously introduced obstructions mixed together in a single stage to create the challenge in later levels. Some of the mechanics are ingenious, though some, like having very limited time to complete a level, feel like a cop out. There’s nothing worse than having to replay a level which you’ve figured out how to complete over and over again simply because you keep running out of time. Seriously, not giving you enough time to complete a level the worst way to create challenge, it’s just frustrating and I’m not sure how that got past QC.
On a brighter note, there is co-op play in this game. I’ve gotten the chance to try out both the Co-op Story and the VS Battle modes and I’ve got slightly mixed feelings about them. Let’s talk about the Co-op Story mode first. This is basically the same game as the Single Player Story, except that all the levels have been redesigned to be challenging for two players and there are impassable barriers which will sometimes keep your little coloured TOM avatars separate. This mode has the same good and bad stuff which makes up the single player game, though Co-op has the advantage of being a social experience as well, of which I am a huge fan. Even bad games (and I don’t mean to say that TOM is bad, I’m speaking more generally here) can be made fun with the inclusion of simultaneous multiplay, even if you and a buddy end up just making fun of the game. One happy surprise I found myself utilizing was the ability to screw with the other player on the board. Your avatar cannot occupy the same space on the grid as any other player, which means you can block your friends from trying to advance. This ended up being a source of fun for me as I would clear “my side” of the screen (an arbitrary and personal dedication) and would then head over to be a general douche to the other TOM who was working so diligently to achieve the exact same goal as I was. If you have ever played Chip ‘N Dale’s Rescue Rangers for the NES, it’s that same sense of competitive ass-hattery which drives the feel of the Co-op Story mode. The levels are also punctuated by titles for each player. I always strove to be the Mastermind, which gives you an image of someone sitting on a toilet and indicates that you have completed more of the puzzle than the other person.
Then is the VS. Battle Mode, which I think is the weakest part of TOM. As much as the single player and co-op modes are like Pipe Dream, VS. Battle is like Qix. You are trying to take territory on a game board by making a box around an area. This feels familiar in your hands as you click the action key to draw the box in the same way you click the action key to flip the tiles in the story mode. Make sure your territory is touching a special infection source block, as that’s the only way to lock down all of your territory and claim it as yours. You are armed with a Bomberman-style bomb that explodes in four directions. Every player is able to lay these bombs, but they come in limited quantity. My issue with this game mode is that you are still confined to a grid even when there is no path to create through a circuit board, which naturally create a grid of square tiles. Movement around the board ends up feeling clunky and limited because of this. If you’re going to lift game mechanics from a really, truly wonderful game like Qix, you’ve got to do it really, truly well. I can’t help but that this game mode would have benefited from eliminating the grid and emulating the original gameplay mechanic a bit more. With the one other friend that I had, this mode did not offer enough variety or remain fun enough to play for long. To be fair, though, I can see this mode getting incredibly crazy with four players.
Moving on to the presentation of TOM, this game looks pretty damn good. The cutscenes are done in a late 90′s cartoon style that I love, and the characters are all incredibly expressive and appropriately detailed. That first scene where the scientist gets fired and is being dragged away… And he’s grinning. That grin made me want to be him, to take revenge right along side of him on this corporation which obviously knows nothing of science, which would expel their greatest mind simply because his inventions are too effective, simply because of a few deaths. It was the mix of GLaDOS’ sheer, cold, sarcastic brilliance and Jim Carrey’s enthusiastic glee which chilled and scared me the first time I watched that scene. The rest of the game’s cutscenes are filled with black humour and an understated style that I really enjoyed. ~gush~ Also of note are the various in-game sprites and other interactive bobbles, the look of which clearly define their purpose while remaining abstract and simple enough to keep the actual game board free of visual clutter. TOM changes his expression to indicate when he’s running out of energy (the currency that is indicative of how much time you have on any particular level) and with certain other events which happen during the course of the game. This means you barely ever have to look to the side of the screen, which is handy in some of the more intense levels. The images related to the titles which you are assigned based on your performance in the multiplayer game modes are always good fun too. One of them is a steaming pile of poop, and another is a badass Jason Voorhees mask. It’s little things like this which make me love TOM‘s visual style.
The sound in this game is pretty sweet. I never ended up humming any of the beats which permeate the game, but the Industrial meets Techno vibe from the tunes hit a good spot. The above link will get you to the streamable soundtrack, which is worth checking out. A lot of the sound effects were perfectly suited to the overall feel of the game, propagating a feeling of smallness and Pac-Man which made me pretty happy. The soundtrack is available to people who pre-ordered the game and is also for sale on Steam, it’s honestly worth more than the tiny amount of money that is being charged for it, so check it out.
The biggest complaint I have about this game is that, while it does offer multiplayer, there is no netcode. This means that only local co-op and VS. battles are possible as there is no option to play over the internet with your Steam buddies. This shouldn’t be a problem for long because Misfit’s Attic has flat out told me that online multiplayer is a priority and will be included in a future update, but I feel that the game is incomplete without this fairly standard function.
A Virus Named TOM ends up being simultaneously aggravating and satisfying. That feeling you get when you flip the last tile and completely infect the board under a tight time constraint can be amazing, especially when you’ve been pulling your hair out trying to make it in the minuscule amount of time given to you. If online multiplayer isn’t really your bag and you like these sorts of games, I would definitely recommend TOM.