Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Polyton Corporation
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
There's something to be said for simple things done incredibly well, and Fez is a game that harks back to a simpler time, when we would stick a cartridge in a machine for the sake of joy and curiosity, and marvel at mechanical creativity and the innovation of design. It is a rich tapestry of bygone days, nostalgic feeling, and rose-tinted hindsight; a knowing testament to a gaming landscape that demanded only that the player be interested and willing, and then provided a carnival of delights to enjoy.
But this is no mausoleum; rather Fez is a pixellated love letter to those halcyon days of ages past.
Phil Fish's comments on the state of Japanese development these days are well documented. But this is a game that reflects younger times weaned on a diet of the console battle between Nintendo and SEGA. This is a game that harks back to the 2D platforming classics of yore, mixing things up with a central premise that sees you switch perspective at the tap of a button.
The game sees you take on the role of smiling bipedal marshmallow - Gomez - who, after chatting to a few of the local villagers, who serve up the odd philosophical musing or two, witnesses a strange occurrence in which a giant gold cube appears before him, and shatters into pieces, scattering flecks of gold everywhere and tearing the very fabric of reality. Still, in true dimension-jumping style, this reality-rending event bestows a fez upon Gomez, because...you know...fezzes are cool.
Aside from channelling a wee bit of Matt Smith, the titular fez also serves to present Gomez with a rather unique power. With a tap of the right or left triggers, it's now possible to rotate the 2D world that Gomez inhabits on its vertical axis, and spin the environment 90 degrees. It's an incredibly simple premise, setting a 2D game in a 3D world, and one that leads to increasingly innovative puzzle-platforming as ledges that were previously inaccessible come into play, as nuts and bolts screwed into the landscape allow you to shift entire slabs of topography, as you chart the path of bomb's explosion around and up a tower, and as hidden areas, objects, and opportunities reveal themselves.
Fez is a game without particular conflict. There are no enemies, no health bar, no resource management, no untoward status effects. Gravity is the only really danger you face, and even when Gomez plummets from a high ledge, to crumple on the floor in a pale heap, he finds himself swiftly brought back to life where he last stood. There's an aim, of course - to locate a bunch of golden fragments to make up 32 golden cubes and patch the dimensional rift back up again, but it's never a particularly oppressive imperative.
In fact that goes for everything here.
Fez shares much with early PSP titles such as echochrome or Crush, games also designed around a simple premise, engineered to create increasingly cerebral platforming puzzles. But Fez differs in terms of the challenge it presents...in short, there isn't much of one. It's not a game interested in testing the limits of your platforming skill, nor perfecting the timing of a jump, and, although there are a few sections that require deft action, the game never becomes an exercise in frustration. Indeed, at times, it seems that locating the golden squares can be a little too easy.
Instead, Fez finds ways to further nudge your sense of curiosity, with a somewhat obtuse map that will fervently assert that there's something in the last room you entered that you missed. Ando so finding the puzzle in the room becomes something of a puzzle in itself. It's only then that your eye begins to capture the little details scattered across the game's world, and you have to revise your whole perspective. The previously indecipherable treasure maps begin to make sense, the pixellated smudge on the wall turns out to be a hint embedded as a QR code, the chalkboard scrawlings, and hung paintings warrant a second look. Fez is never explicit about anything in particular, apart from the requirements for opening up doors in later levels, but it's the dawning realisation that the game holds so much more than you first thought that provides the true incentive to go further down Fez's multitude of rabbit holes.
Then, when you reach the end, the New Game + mode opens up and, armed with all of your cubes and keys and maps, you start anew, and the game flips everything, with 32 anti-matter cubes up for grabs, and a hidden extra that will totally change the way you look at the game.
It would be easy to dismiss Fez as just another pixellated indie darling, capturing the hearts and minds of the critical crowd with its retro charm and whimsical aesthetics. And Fez knows it. It's all too easy to consider a scenario where a gamer might breeze through the game and never really give it another thought. But as with so many games from yesteryear, this is a title that gives back what you put in. It's equally easy to find yourself captivated with the strikingly different places you'll see and explore - from the mechanical innards of a bell tower, to a lonely lighthouse outcropping, to pixellated cyberpunk city chunk with flickering neon signs and the blur of background rats, to forests, caves, beaches and ruins - and once one or two of Fez's well-hidden secrets are uncovered, it's impossible to stop the desire for more. Moreover, it's a game that will set tongues wagging as friends turn to one another for hints and tips, a slip of the tongue leading to another hour of gameplay as you strike out to investigate the latest glimmer of nostalgic brilliance that almost completely passed you by.
Sadly, it would remiss to fail to acknowledge that while Fez serves up several tricks incorporating fake bugs, there are some rather real software issues too. Although this writer was lucky enough to only have the game reset itself once or two (thankfully the auto-save system is fairly robust), there have been reports of some seriously nasty game-breaking faults.
Furthermore, whilst the general platforming elements might not provide much frustration, the intricately crafted additional puzzles may well do. Even with little previews of what lies behind doors you've already explored available, pathfinding is often an exercise in exasperation.,a dn as much as the openness will be a delight to many, it will cause confusion for others, with the map offering little solace to the would-be adventurer. Even when you get to a room containing a secret, often there'll be little to nothing readily apparent, and the first pass will often make little sense. Understanding that, and trusting that you'll work out the puzzle along the way is part of what makes Fez an exceptional game - it never patronises the player at all - and the feeling of satisfaction when you unearth a new nugget of knowledge is palpable indeed.
In many ways, Fez reminds me of Portal, though the former is far more freeform, and less willing to reveal the story that underpins the world in which it is set. But both create moments of supreme frustration in the player at the limits of knowledge and understanding, and both provide exceptional payoffs when the player finally overcomes those hurdles. If you're willing to play the game and truly get involved, Fez will reward you time and time again. It will never make demands of you, never seeks to box you in or tell you what to do, and in an age of almost universal hand-holding that is to be commended. It's a flawed work of brilliance to be sure, but brilliance nonetheless.
- Well worked mechanics
- Immensely satisfying, challenging puzzles
- Glorious aesthetics - both visually and aurally
- Clunky map
- Bugs need fixing
- All too easy to miss the best bits
The Short Version: Fez is a beautifully wrought game, full of aesthetic wonder, and with a strong central mechanics incredibly well implemented. But that is only half the story. Give yourself over to Polytron's world and the intricacy of design, and the labyrinthine puzzles that lie below the surface will keep you coming back for more.