If you yearn for the days where games were more than linear corridor shooters where you are led by the nose from one cut-scene to the next, Fez might just be what the doctor ordered. The game is the brainchild of Phil Fish, who these days might be more known for his outspoken opinions than the brilliantly quirky platformer that took him five years to create. If you can look past the creator and focus on the creation it becomes evident that Fez is actually worth all the hype and anticipation.
Fez cast you in the role of Gomez, who is a humanoid creature that inhabits a two-dimensional gameworld. One day Gomez is given a fez by a mysterious hexahedron and after donning it, he is able to view his surroundings through new eyes. Instead of the flat world he is used to, Gomez discovers that the world actually has three dimensions. Through the power of the fez Gomez is able to rotate the gameworld to reveal previously invisible areas and to manipulate his surroundings. Shortly after discovering this new power the hexahedron explodes, shattering fragments everywhere (and crashing the game in the process!) Gomez is joined by a hypercube that informs him unless he can find all 32 parts of the hexahedron the world will end.
Despite what Phil might have said about the state of the Japanese gaming industry, it is very clear that he is fond of classic 8bit titles. Everywhere you go in Fez there are nods to Tetris, Super Mario Bros, The Legend Of Zelda, Castlevania and other classics. At first glance Fez appears to be a pretty standard platform game, albeit with a unique visual style, but after playing for a few minutes you’ll realize that there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. Firstly, there are no enemies in Fez, you are completely free to explore your surroundings without fear of being attacked by anything. This is not to say that you cannot be killed. Slip off a ledge or miss a jump and poor Gomez will plunge to his death. You’ll also encounter blocks of “negative” space later on, which sucks Gomze in if he touches them. Instead of checkpoints or Game Over screens, however, Gomez simply re-appears on the last bit of solid ground that he stood on. This eliminates any frustration and ensures that when he bites the dust there is no tedium involved in getting back to where you were.
The perspective shifting gameplay provides some pretty nifty puzzles. You can rotate the gameworld on its axis so each level actually has four different sides. Reaching doors and platforms usually involve rotating the gameworld in such a fashion that previously unconnected platforms or structures line up. You can only rotate the world in ninety degree increments and it snaps into place so the platforming remains strictly two dimensional. There are some unique puzzles such as lining up a ladder that is spread across multiple unconnected platforms into a seamless whole or rotating the gameworld after starting a chain explosion that rips through weak wall segments.
Some levels require individual require that you rotate individual parts of the scenery which adds an added layer of complexity. The Escher-esque gameplay mechanics are quite novel but some people will find the game to be a little on the easy side. Finding the 32 cube segments requires a lot of exploration but can often be found simply through trial and error. In fact, the biggest challenge in finding these cubes is the map screen which is a rat nest of connected lines. It shows you where you are and which areas have items you might have missed, but getting from one point to the next is a bit of a nightmare. Expect to do a lot of backtracking if you are a completionist.
You might stumble upon your first anti-cube by accident; I found mine by following the instructions embedded in a QR code I noticed on a wall in the game. Once you do, however, you can kiss another chunk of your time goodbye as tracking down these elusive pieces are a lot harder than the regular ones. Quite a few of the puzzles involving these cubes had me smiling in glee as I finally cracked them. You might also start noticing all the obscure, seemingly meaningless symbols and codes that adorn the gameworld. Sooner or later you might start piecing these together and realize that there is more to discover about the game. I won’t spoil anything but Fez is one of those games that manage to make you feel very smart if you crack its secrets without resorting to Internet forums or guides.
The visual style in Fez is charming and packs a lot of detail that might not be apparent at first glance. The different parts of the gameworld each have a unique style and pay homage to classic titles of old. You’ll find underground sections with a distinctly Gameboy visual style, green pastures, stormy castles and neon city-scapes. Each area is also alive with wildlife which initially you might think could be a danger to you. The birds that sit in the trees, butterflies that flit about and other fauna such as turtles and foxes that inhabit the areas really bring the world to life. The day/night cycle not only plays a role in certain puzzles, but look rather nice as well with deep colored sunsets and tetromino constellations painted in the starry nightsky. The game also “crashes” on a few occasions as part of the story and returns with an elaborate DOS era style boot-up screen. This is quite funny until you encounter a few of the instances where the game really crashes or freezes up. Fortunately, this only happened a few times during my time with the game and I didn’t lose any progress. The rotations of the gameworld can occasionally also become jerky, but this might be due to the fact that I played the game from a USB drive.
The soundtrack to the game fits the visual style and gameplay perfect and was produced by Rich Vreeland or as he is commonly known, Disasterpace. The chiptune tracks never become annoying and a few are actually quite catchy. The sound effects are pretty minimal, but once again fit the style of the game. Controls are responsive and even the vibration of your controller plays a role in puzzles so be sure not to switch it off.
The protracted development period resulted in Fez not being quite as unique as it was when first unveiled, but even amidst the myriad of other indie games that embraced the retro style, it still stands tall. Polytron has managed to squeeze a lot out of the simple gameplay mechanics and the cryptic puzzles, while not essential to completing the game, will taunt players until they have figured everything out. The sense of humor that permeates the game also adds to the charm. Your hypercube sidekick, for example, is supposed to provide you with tips and advice, but most of the time it is as clueless as you are about the purpose of items.
Fez is one of those rare games where progress in the gameworld is not dependant on the items that your character collects but rather on you wrapping your head around the way the game works. This makes solving the puzzles so much more satisfying and will keep you playing long after you have viewed the rather psychedelic ending. Fez is far from perfect, but it certainly provided me with one of the more unique gameplay experiences I’ve had.
*Review originally published 2012.