It was almost five years ago when the world first heard about Fez, a little independent puzzle platforming game with an 8-bit art style and a perspective-shifting gameplay element. After a few delays, and a few controversies, developer Polytron is finally releasing Fez on to the Xbox Live Arcade.
You control a little big-headed doughboy-like protagonist named Gomez. His is a world of pixels, devoid of curves and circles. All is square. That is, until you obtain the magical Fez of which the title speaks. This chapeau of destiny opens up Gomez’s mind to a dimension beyond his comprehension. Namely, the third dimension.
Duuuude. I'm trippin' cubes.
While some may draw comparisons to Super Paper Mario, this is no simple binary switch between 2D and 3D. With simple flicks of the left and right triggers you can rotate the world on its axis, like a Rubix Cube in a way. Rotating your perspective will open new pathways with which to explore your world. While you'll be playing on four sides of a ‘column’, you're only interacting with them in a 2D perspective. So gameplay basically boils down to good ol’ 2D platforming.
You jump, climb, and rotate through each level in the hopes of collecting 32 cubes scattered over the world. Some of these cubes are fully formed, hidden away behind puzzles and locked doors. Most of them you have to construct by collecting eight ‘cube bits’ for every one full cube, and these are scattered around the levels.
Beyond the rotating-your-perspective hook, the strongest draw of this game is the presentation. In a look many would currently consider 2D Minecraft, everything is square. You'll see birds, snails, and other small animals all built with just a few pixels. The square clouds rain square drops on square trees. Layered over this simple aesthetic are hints at an HD experience. Time must move fast in the world of Fez because every ten minutes I witnessed another glorious pixel sunset, followed by night, and then a sunrise. Shadows and lighting make even the flat 2D landscape seem deep. The music flows over the whole experience with often-soothing chiptune rhythms. This soothing quality helps to keep any frustration over a challenging puzzle low and generally makes the whole game quite relaxing.
Levels are numerous, making the overall world of Fez much larger than you would expect. There are uniquely themed hub worlds that have doors that send you to mini-worlds, which in turn have doors that send you into rooms that have secret doors that connect you to hidden puzzles, and so on. Soon your map looks like an expansive cubed flowchart that would become overwhelming if the game weren’t so well designed. Each individual level is very manageable, allowing you to take your time and comb over each square of real estate until you've uncovered every secret the game has hidden away. There is just the right balance of challenging without being frustrating, making every success all the sweeter.
The more you play the more the questions begin to creep into your brain. Where am I going? What are these cubes for? What's behind that giant mystery door? The game doesn’t really communicate your motivations beyond “collect shiny cubes”, but for some reason that makes you want to solve the mystery all the more.
What starts as your standard jump-that-gap and climb-that-vine-covered-wall gameplay really becomes complex later on when you find invisible platforms and moveable ladders. Luckily, the controls are pixel (sorry) perfect. There's hardly anything you might consider an enemy, but you'll nevertheless see little Gomez die often. Falling into a bottomless pit, or simply falling more than half a screen of distance will cause you to perish and instantly respawn at the last spot of solid ground you had your feet on. This becomes a wonderful blessing, as a lot of the game involves climbing high up a long series of platforms. If you were to be able to ‘make like Mario’ and survive a massive drop, it would result in a lot of frustration, since you'd have to climb the same construct over and over again. That said, Gomez is one of those charmingly adorable characters that you don’t want to see hurt, so the little rumble of your controller and thud the game makes when he smacks into the ground has a touch of dark humor to it.
Fez surprised me the most when it was reminding me of the joy of exploration. Finding short cuts, secret doors, and hidden puzzles tickles the old-school gamer part of my brain. Among my favorite puzzles are the hidden QR-codes, which fit perfectly into the aesthetic of a pixel-only world. There is a very meta feeling to pulling out a smartphone to scan my television screen so I can get a ‘secret code’ to solve a puzzle in a game I’m playing on my Xbox 360.
Therein lies the true charm of Fez. It's a game that knows it's a videogame; it breaks the fourth wall by causing the game to ‘reset’ sometimes; there are nods to Tetris pieces in some puzzles; and your little talking tag-along companion, named Dot, is hardly any real help (just like most chatty gaming companions) and even drops a “Hey, Listen!” reference.
Getting through all of the levels and beating the game will run you approximately nine hours, maybe more for the completionist. There's a New Game+ with additional features, but I won’t spoil those for you here. I will just say that these features are well worth a second playthrough. All in all a fine little package for 800 Microsoft points ($10).
Wait a minute. Fez rhymes with Gomez! What are the odds?
Fez is a game lover’s game. Its graphics show the beauty of 8-bit pixel art and its soundtrack consists of catchy chiptune beats. The level design and overall atmosphere reinvigorates the joy of exploration. If you want a game that's relaxing, surprising, and engaging, then give Fez a spin.
This review is based on an XBLA copy of Fez, provided by the publisher.