Brought to us by indie developer Misfits Attic, A Virus Named Tom, is a simple yet challenging action-puzzle game with a charming retro feel to it; probably due to green being everywhere, in a sickly good way.
It tasks you will connecting pieces of a pipeline circuit together to spread a virus (named Tom) from start to finish. If there’s a missing link in the chain, the whole thing will fail. “Anti-virus” drones serve as the main enemy, with the consequence of a collision being instant death. While that’s annoying, it will also subtract a sizable chunk of time from the clock and potentially lead to your demise. Running out of time means restarting at the beginning (unless you use a precious skip, but these should be preserved, as there are a few levels that will melt your brain at 5:30pm on a Friday evening).
Moving slowly and strategically to avoid drones is a more serviceable tactic. However, I often found my own incompetence to be my downfall. It’s easy to learn the drones’ movement patterns, and yet I often ran straight into them, time and time again, while I was fixated on solving the puzzle. They don’t call it an action-puzzle game for nothing.
Tom’s only defense against drones hellbent on his destruction is to lay a “glitch” in their path — a bomb of sorts that temporarily halts their movement. If you ingeniously orchestrate a collision between two, they’ll be removed from the playing field for a few valuable seconds. In the early stages, however, time spent destroying the drones isn’t worth the reward of a few seconds without them. You’re better off dodging and planning cunning ways to circumvent a crash in the first place.
Up until this point, we’ve only played co-op with two players, but the game allows for up to four. With two compatriots, some levels ingeniously split down the middle with an untraversable barrier, defining teamwork in the process, as one player is relegated to spectator until the other connects the virus (successfully) to their side and vice versa until complete.
Other puzzles give you free rein to work together across the level. Sometimes it just clicks and you’ll each do your fair share of work. Other times there’s an obvious maladroit, best off standing to the side to let the other player do their thing. Assuming they have a decent plan, that is. Heller and I lucked our way to the end of a puzzle with seconds to spare more times than we’d care to admit, usually incorrectly assuming the other knew what he as doing.
One of the more challenging, dare I say frustrating, puzzles turns every connector into a question mark, only becoming visible when it successfully carries a virus. This isn’t such an issue when you can reply on trial and error, but soon enough there is no virus source to get the party started.
This comes about when the regular brown drones are joined by green infected ones. By laying a glitch in their path, the aim is to cause two drones to crash into each other, causing the virus to leak out of the infected drone and into your perfectly connected pipeline. When you can’t see the components, trial and error must be combined with glitching the infected drones on a repetitive loop. The virus will temporarily be transported around pipeline but stop and disappear when it hits an unconnected link. To complete the level, the invisible pipeline must be faultlessly connected before you release the virus, sometimes simultaneously in several locations.
The inability to see what you’re doing ramps up the difficulty ten fold, as well as the frustration. It can be especially annoying in co-op when a barrier prevents one player from doing anything as the other struggles to make any semblance of forward progress.
However, frustration in a puzzle game isn’t necessarily a negative. The more you’re forced to work to complete the pipeline, the more rewarding the outcome. Especially in co-op, where you’re in it together, in success and failure. Not since Portal 2 have I played a game that had me and my partner completely lost, before it eventually just clicked. The feeling of relief and accomplishment when you finally finish a difficult, yet brilliant, puzzle is like no other in gaming.
It’s a feeling I strive towards and why even now, as I write this, I have an inclining to go and test myself with A Virus Named Tom.
There’s also a single-player mode with a story that explains all of this (actually it’s probably in co-op as well, but I skipped to the gameplay) and competitive multiplayer. I hope that’s just as good when I make the switch, but for now, I’m content with co-op. It feels like A Virus Named Tom was made to be played like this, so much so that two players strikes the perfect balance between difficulty and that eventual bitter sweet success.