XBLA Review: FEZ

By now, Fez has collected its share of notoriety, mostly for uniting hordes of internet forumgoers in a cooperative quest to decipher its web of unprecedentedly obscure – and possibly genius – puzzles, a task which took them several weeks. As an event among the gaming community, Fez is doubtlessly a benchmark. Luckily, its substance is as strong as its reputation.

Likely, you know the game’s primary hook: It’s played in side-on 2D, but its world is three-dimensional. With a click of a trigger button, your perspective on the ostensibly 16-bit world rotates 90 degrees – revealing for a split-second blocky, polygonal models. The game’s rules are such that depth, for most intents and purposes, is nonexistent. If two platforms are horizontally aligned, it doesn’t matter if one is actually far behind the other in 3D space. When your perspective makes the jump seem possible, it is.

By Fez’s opening 15 minutes, when you’re let into its branching Metroidesque map, you’d expect a series of progressively more complex puzzles based around the nifty rotation mechanic, pushing it to its logical limits. Y’know, as Portal does with portals and Braid does with time manipulation. Yet surprisingly, the rotation-based platforming segments remain very straightforward. The game’s true puzzles (largely separate from the rotation mechanic) are buried deep, and often only accessible – let alone solvable - with shovelfuls of patience, perception and abstract thought – or a defeatist attitude and a Google search. To 100% the game, 64 cubes are needed, one half being gold cubes and the other being anti-cubes. The former can be found in the open with little effort while the latter are rewarded for completing the aforementioned true puzzles. Hidden around the map, these puzzles involve almost no direct language (a la point and click games), they’re all based on symbolism and pattern recognition. Solving them is difficult and profoundly rewarding. Spoiler-less hint: If you’re not filling notebooks with tinfoil-hat theories and complex iconography, you’re not playing correctly.

And somehow, outside this core network of puzzles, Fez is a calm experience where enjoyment comes from merely exploring rather than solving or defeating anything. There are no enemies. Between you and the 32 cubes necessary to see the credits there’s only easy platforming: Every failed jump insta-spawns you back on firm ground. It’s completely unchallenging, yet engages surprisingly well. Gameplay is meditative and soothing. A mysterious, hopeful, and sentimental mood runs throughout, likely built by a combination of the gorgeous, airy chiptune soundtrack and a detailed world that, while game-ey with its floating platforms and improbable architecture, is oddly believable. Among all the praise aimed at Fez’s bonkers cryptic side, it’s easy to forget its leisurely, dreamy side is excellent too.

Though there is a narrative, it’s mostly told between the lines and, ultimately, not terribly relevant to enjoying the game. Intermittently, you’ll bump into a storyline allusion and think “cool”, but Fez builds its profound vibe more from the visual design and music than from its narrative content.

You almost certainly won’t see all of Fez without forum-browsing. The game is esoteric enough to ensure that. But even with the occasional (Tactfully administered!) aid of the internet, figuring it out is delightful. Actually, the impeccable world design and aesthetic makes it delightful even when aimlessly wandering about, failing to figure it out. So yes, Fez is a fantastic game, but recommendable to only to a small subset of gamers who tolerate A) very obscure, abstract puzzle solving and B) near total lack of “action”. Should you fit these criteria, this is Game of the Year material.

Pros:

  • Beautiful neo-retro graphics
  • Soundtrack that massages your soul with chiptune ambience
  • Very clever web of puzzles…

Cons:

  • …slightly too clever for most humans

5 out of 5

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Author: Magnus Risebro View all posts by
Magnus Risebro lives deep in the bowels of Norway. He writes about videogames for Vagary.tv.