On the surface Fez may appear to be a simple platformer with retro pixelized aesthetics but it is a much more insanely complex experience. The discussion surrounding Fez in the future will be interesting purely to see the divide between people’s experience with the game. Fez can essentially be interpreted in two very different ways. The first is a simple platformer with a cool perception mechanic while the other is an incredibly deep, mind bending mystery that is so subtle that it can be easily missed.
Before I get too far down the rabbit hole, Fez follows the adventure of Gomez whose 2D world has just been transformed by the addition of a third dimension. The 3D dimension to a traditional 2D view is the crux of Fez and the beginning of challenging the players’ perception.
The world of Fez can be imagined as a four sided column with only one side being shown at any time. Pulling either the left or right trigger will shift the game’s camera and Gomez’s orientation to another side of this column. As the column shifts, the elements that make up the background and foreground of each level shift as well to different perspectives, opening up new platforming options. While it may appear that there is no way to progress forward, changing perspective can render a new ledge to jump to or a hidden ladder.
It is truly astounding how each part of a level fits together when the world is shifted. What appear to be completely separate parts of a level become integral to traversing the environment. A simple square block in one view may actually be a long rectangle in another that is essential to making a jump from a different perspective.
Fez relies on challenging the player’s perception in order to overcome each level. It also encourages experimentation and exploration in order to find creative solutions to solve the intelligently designed puzzles. Aside from simple mechanic explanations, there is no instruction on how to solve each level. Instead it reinforces the need to explore different perceptions and experiment with different strategies in order to progress. Even the companion character, Dot, is purposely unhelpful, often forgetting the importance of an object or noting something of significance but not stating how to interact with it.
The need to experiment is further reinforced by the lack of any threat or consequence of failure. When Gomez dies, either by falling off the map or falling from too great a height, he simply respawns from the ledge he fell from. There are no finite amount of lives, no death loading screens and no punishment. The ability to try a risky off the wall idea without the fear of losing progress is very liberating. When one of these ideas actually works it is very satisfying, similar to solving a puzzle room in Portal.
The core ability to manipulate dimensions is only one of the many charms of Fez. Accompanying the innovative design is a beautiful aesthetic and faux-retro sound. The pixelized universe that Gomez inhabits is vibrant and the old school inspired music adds a lot of personality to Fez. The music, more so than the visuals brought me back to playing video games on NES. Many of the sound effects are also reminiscent of the classic Nintendo system. Apart from the visuals and sound, Fez is constantly paying homage to games of the past with many Mario and Tetris references scattered throughout the levels. Fez is really a love letter to the games of the NES while pushing forth new innovative ideas.
While Fez is a great platforming experience, there is a subtle undercurrent to the game that is more retro than either the visuals or sound effects. Fez is constantly throwing puzzles pieces at the player without them even noticing. The dozens of levels that populate Fez are filled with secrets that only the truly inclined (or those that know how to use Google) will uncover and solve. Paintings that hang on the wall or scribbles on a chalkboard in a classroom may appear to be simply aesthetics but in reality they are clues to solving puzzles elsewhere in the game. I actually began to play Fez with graph paper to map out how these seemingly background visuals came together to solve a puzzle and unlock content.
There are also QR codes that are littered throughout the game. Using a QR reader on a Smartphone to decipher these images will result in a code, reminiscent of a cheat code, that unlocks additional hidden cubes. There is also one puzzle that can only be solved by using a hidden password found in the game’s achievement list. Interacting with Fez beyond controller input is a great addition that adds another level of complexity to the experience. Solving all of these countless puzzles is an addictive mystery I cannot get enough of.
Despite some online reports of bugs in Fez, I only ran into one issue worth mentioning. The frame rate dips a little bit occasionally while the game auto saves. Other than that Fez was a fluid platformer.
As a fan of video games in general, Fez is one of the most unique and fulfilling games of the past few years. The great platforming mechanics coupled with the art and sound direction create a great throwback feel. The innovative use of controlling the perspective of the 2D world challenges the player’s perception and needs to be experienced to be understood. The added complexity of solving puzzles and finding secrets without being explicitly told how to solve them is a rewarding experience that is in line with the innovative ideas of games like Metal Gear Solid and Eternal Darkness. If you enjoy platforming or games of the bygone gaming era, then Fez is a must buy. I think anyone with an Xbox 360 should check it out simply because of its interesting mechanics and reverence towards games of the past.
This review is based on a downloadable copy of the 360 version of Fez.