Review: Fez for Xbox Live Arcade
At some point, amongst all the flashing colours, retro music, obscure puzzles, and changing worlds in Fez, I think my brain may have imploded. Fez, an indie game developed and published by a company called Polytron, is the kind of game that will surprise, amaze and exhaust you. It borrows from so many genres that it's simultaneously a retro-throwback, 2D platformer, 3D platformer, puzzle game, and adventure game.
Fez is about a little character called Gomez, who lives in a little village made of bright, colourful 8-bit graphics where the concept of seeing in 3D doesn't exist. One day, he's taken to another world where a giant cube called 'The Hexahedron' explodes and shatters into dozens of pieces that scatter all over the world. Gomez's job is to run around the world and collect these pieces to put his Hexahedron friend back together before the world falls apart. It's not the strongest storyline ever, but the game's not about the story - it's about the way gameplay is structured around one key mechanic.
The chief game mechanic in Fez is the kind of brilliant idea that will strike most people only once in a lifetime, if that. In a 2D platformer, you can move your character up and down, left and right, but not forward and back. This is still true in Fez, but if you want to move forward, or back, you can move the world around your character. Say Gomez is standing in front of a building. You can see the door, and the windows, and only move in 2D. Press a button, and the world rotates 90 degrees. Gomez is now standing in front of the side of the building, which is just a brick wall. He can still only move in 2D.
Still confused? Check out the trailer:
Shifting perspective in this way alters the placement of various objects on your screen. By rotating the world around Gomez, you can move a platform closer to him, so it's within jumping reach. This is the main way you solve puzzles in the game - by figuring out what objects you need to stand on in order to reach the objects you need to collect, then moving the environment around until those objects are within reach. Because of all the gameplay revolving around this one mechanic, Fez's closest cousin is the fantastic indie title Braid, in which you have to reverse time to collect objects and solve puzzles.
While that may seem like clever-but-simple mechanic, the rest of of game is far from simple. Fez is not linear. It's the complete opposite of linear. Fez is structured as though you're dumped in the middle of a maze, but rather than having to find a way out, you have to find a way to explore every corner. Worlds lead to more worlds, which branch off into other worlds, and you'll have to revisit some of them many times and remember which places connect to which other places.
Along the way, there's mysterious writing on the wall for you to figure out, and secret doors for you to find. There are strange additional puzzles for you to decode and solve, all of which use the chief game mechanic in some new and inventive way. In short, it is brain-bending and remarkably addictive. Fez had me so hooked that I played for eight hours straight and forgot to eat.
Remarkably, despite the fact that puzzle games are not my forte, Fez rarely created a feeling of frustration. Perhaps this was because, despite some darker elements, the game always seemed to create a safe, happy environment to explore through its use of bright colours, as well as wonderful, almost Final Fantasy VII-like 8-bit music. Maybe it was because you could fall off platforms thousands of times with no fear of a 'game over' screen. Or it could have been the pure, unadulterated satisfaction of a complex puzzle finally solved.
If you enjoyed Braid, or Portal, or any of the other fantastic puzzlers that have come out in the past decade, you'll love Fez. It's fun, and friendly, and surprisingly beautiful - but more importantly, it will make you use parts of your brain that you'd forgotten how to use. It's not easy, but it's a much deeper, more satisfying experience than you might expect.