Developer: Polytron / Publisher: Microsoft Studios / Price: 800 MSP / Played on: Xbox 360 / ESRB: E [Mild Fantasy Violence]
One look at its throwback aesthetic and world-spinning mechanic and you may peg FEZ as another light-hearted, downloadable, 2D platformer meant to stroke your 8-bit nostalgia. But that doesn’t give enough credit to this game’s style. Its reverence for the way games used to be isn’t that shallow. FEZ is a game that appears straightforward at first but slowly reveals itself to be anything but. There’s a deep, deep rabbit hole here that’s just begging you to take the plunge.
If you’re taking FEZ at face value, and at first there’s very little reason not to, it’s a pretty simple puzzle platformer that opens when your character Gomez wakes up in his home village to discover his newfound ability to rotate the world 90 degrees at a time. This means platforms, which initially appear far away, can be moved to jumping distance with a spin of the world. It’s not the most original mechanic, but in the context of FEZ’s gameplay, it really works to blend seamlessly what would be pretty standard 2D platforming with the satisfaction that comes from puzzle-solving. It all ends up feeling pretty unique and works as a great foundation for the rest of the game.
All of this is done in the name of exploring FEZ’s game world to find cubes (and pieces of cubes). These are most easily equated to stars from a Mario game as there are gated doors that require a certain number of cubes to pass through. But beyond those doors, FEZ provides very little direction. The appeal comes from exploring at your own pace, figuring out what to do and then moving on to the next area. I almost never felt rushed in FEZ and I think that’s key to why I wanted to spend so much time exploring.
But as I made my way through FEZ, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the game was trying to tell me something. Strange symbols and weird iconography is found across pretty much all parts of the world. And as I started poking my head into the game’s various nooks and crannies, it became apparent FEZ is much deeper than it lets on.
Finding the game’s super-secret hidden cubes, known as anti-cubes, requires levels of thinking most modern games fail to test. So much so that the process almost ends up being its own game unto itself. At one point, I had to scan an in-game QR code in order to acquire an otherwise secret button combination. And, at another point, I had to disconnect my 360 from Xbox Live so I could manually manipulate my system clock in order to solve a time puzzle. There are entire languages and numeric systems that need to be translated to discover everything in FEZ. By the time I was finished with the game about a dozen pages of my notebook were filled with cryptographic markings that had it looking like something out of a Dan Brown novel. I have fond memories of discussing with friends how to unlock secret characters in Mortal Kombat 2 or how to catch Mew in Pokemon Red and I suspect FEZ will encourage similar conversations.
However, there are many puzzles that are basically unsolvable until you’ve moved on to New Game Plus mode. I dig FEZ’s abstract design, but at some point what it asks of its players is borderline unreasonable. It’s frustrating to bang your head against a brick wall only to discover later on that that brick wall was impossible to get through until other situations played out.
And what doesn’t help that situation is FEZ’s map. At some point, you need to stop exploring and start relying on the game’s map to visit specific areas of the world. While it looks awesome, FEZ’s world map kind of becomes a cluster fuck of connected cubes in space. It’s not only hard to read but also does a poor job of letting you know which doors lead to which areas, making your inevitable backtracking excursions more tedious than they should be.
Chances are you remember the 8-bit era days a lot more fondly than they deserve. FEZ isn’t so much a recreation of that look as it is a modernization of it. There are moods and atmospheres achieved with FEZ that could never have been accomplished on actual 8-bit consoles. In many ways, FEZ looks like how videogames might if they had never entered the polygonal era. The rainy, neon-light filled area is just as evocative of Blade Runner as any traditional three dimensional game. And the great thing about FEZ’s gameplay is that it’s paced in such a way that you’re able to appreciate just how much painstaking effort went into handcrafting these environments.
Given how fantastic-looking FEZ is, it’s extra disappointing that the game is riddled with technical issues. While it never hard-locked on me (like many have reported) the more I played, the more the game began to stutter and chug when exiting load screens. And on a couple of occasions the game randomly booted me back to the Xbox dashboard without warning. None of these issues are super game-breaking and an apologist might even argue they kind of thematically fit into all the meta weirdness of the game but, regardless, they are a bummer.
FEZ is an artistic triumph all around and its soundtrack and audio design are no exception. Like its visuals, FEZ’s music is inspired by the 8-bit era without being overly indulgent. It’s filled with tracks that just seem perfectly suited for the game. It’s crunchy, spacey, and mysterious and fits well with the look and tone of this weird location.
On the surface, FEZ is a cool game. It’s got a great art style and an interesting enough gameplay hook. But don’t let it fool you into thinking it’s all about platforming and world turning. It’s not. It’s a game about taking in information and using it in ways you never would have expected. It asks a lot from its players but, in return, provides an experience more rewarding than most.