After many long years in development beset by repeated delays, FEZ, the mind-bending, perspective-shifting puzzler/platformer by the Polytron Corporation is finally here. With its charming visuals, mind-bogglingly clever gameplay, and fantastic ambient soundtrack, I’m happy to report that FEZ was absolutely worth the wait. You’ll be confused and amazed in equal measure, so read on to see what all the fuss is about.
FEZ tells a simple tale, but an intriguing one. You play as Gomez, a little white…thing, living in a 2D world full of people who are obsessed with the fact that they exist in only two dimensions. All that changes when Gomez discovers a mysterious 3D cube, which then explodes, scattering cube bits throughout the world and bestowing Gomez with the titular red hat that allows him to see his world in 3D. It’ll be up to Gomez to collect the cube bits and reassemble the cube before it rips apart time and space.
Right away, FEZ seems both old and refreshingly new at the same time. Its standard run, jump, climb mechanics are something anyone can easily grasp, but it’s the fact that you can shift perspectives which forms the core of FEZ’s gameplay. It’s also a mechanic whose practical application is very difficult to describe in words. See a floating island that appears out of reach? Shift your camera until its within reach. Really, it’s better if I just show you what I’m talking about. Watching this video should give you a better understanding of how FEZ’s core mechanics work and will make the rest of this review much easier to understand.
The world is laid out in a sandbox-like configuration, with no real guidance or specific objectives aside from “collect cube bits”. You’re guided by Dot, a floating cube that hovers over your shoulder and whose application bears more than a passing resemblance to Ocarina of Time’s Navi. Only instead of actually giving you useful information, Dot is often as clueless as you are, and instead of providing you actual puzzle solving hints, it will instead say things like “Uh…I wonder what this means”. So do I, Dot. So do I.
FEZ is a large game, and the places you’ll go are incredibly varied. From floating villages, to underground sewers (complete with Gameboy-style graphical filter), to creepy graveyards, to towering forest canopies, almost every location introduces some new gameplay element. Pumping pistons that send you flying into the air, spinning cube platforms that can drop you to your death, black holes (!), invisible platforms whose presence is only revealed when lightning strikes, spinning platforms that force a perspective shift so long as you stand on them – I could go on for several more paragraphs just talking about all of FEZ’s challenges. Since there are no enemies to contend with, it’s the environments themselves that pose the real threat.
Even without enemies, FEZ is a tough game, but it’s not hard in a way that’s frustrating or cheap. The challenge comes from figuring out the environment, twisting it to serve your purposes, as well as some of the platforming, which is challenging as well. It’s a cerebral sort of challenge as opposed to a more manual one, since death could barely even be considered a setback. Falling to your doom merely resets you on the last piece of solid ground you touched, and respawns are instant. It creates a very laid back pace – there is no sense of urgency, but you’ll be driven forward by your desire to simply see what other crazy things the game has to offer.
Simply figuring out where you are and where you want to go next is another part of FEZ’s challenge, as the game’s map is incredibly daunting upon first glance. A giant web of interconnected level nodes, you probably won’t fully grasp its enormity until you open some warp gates. There are five of the big warp gates, which are all connected to one another, and over a dozen “Small gates”, which will simply transport you back to the last gate through which you traveled. There are also hidden shortcut doors scattered throughout the game which will transport you between areas that do not otherwise seem connected.
Now, I originally had an entire paragraph lined up about how esoteric some of FEZ’s puzzles are, with their inscriptions in a strange language and lack of hints or tips – but that was before I discovered the game’s means for conveying the translation of its language. Simply put, it is absolutely brilliant – one of the most clever things I’ve seen in a game in many years. It fits so perfectly, yet you probably won’t even notice it the first time you see it. When it hits you, however, you’ll be thunderstruck. It can be described in just two simple words. I’m not going to spoil the particulars of this little slice of genius, suffice it to say I actually wrote out an entire legend that I used to translate the various writings in-game.
On the presentation side of things, FEZ is nearly flawless. Its pseudo-16 bit aesthetic lends a ton of charm to the proceedings, and the use of color is truly fantastic. I’m not exaggerating when I say that these are some of the best looking and most well designed game environments I’ve ever seen. All the little animals hopping about, people in towns, and day/night cycle all help to lend a real sense of life and activity to the environments as well.
The sound design, similarly, is absolutely fantastic. The soundtrack, by Disasterpiece, is comprised of ambient chiptune-ish music, and it creates a relaxing atmosphere that fits the game like a glove. Then there are the more subtle touches, such as muffling the music whenever you’re standing behind a piece of scenery. It all just blends so incredibly well, and the music ends up becoming an integral part of the experience. If you haven’t heard any of FEZ’s soundtrack yet, I strongly suggest you check it out.
FEZ is also a pretty lengthy game, especially for a mere 800 Microsoft Points (or $10). There are 32 cubes to collect, each comprised of 8 cube bits, as well as another 32 “anti-cubes”, 9 treasure maps, and 4 rare artifacts. You can make it to the end of the game with the bare minimum in roughly 6-8 hours, but be prepared to spend at least twice that amount if you’re hoping to find everything, especially if you start a New Game+. Even after completing my first playthrough, there was still a ton of stuff I hadn’t yet found; many areas I hadn’t yet accessed. Completionists will find a lot to love here.
It’s not all rainbows and unicorn farts, however, as there are a few technical issues that put a damper on an otherwise flawless presentation. Transitions between areas often become choppy, even causing the audio to stutter. It’s a minor complaint, but in a game where the audio/visual presentation is so stellar overall, it’s pretty noticeable. Also, when the game autosaves, which happens frequently, it will sometimes stutter briefly – just enough to mess up that jump you had been trying to execute. It can be annoying, but it’s not game breaking. I am, however, holding out hope that Polytron will release a title update to remedy the issue.
The bottom line here is that FEZ is a game you should not miss. Its simple brilliance and sheer cleverness is leaps and bounds ahead of what you’ll find in even the most lavishly produced retail games these days. It’s the sort of title that all but proves the legitimacy of downloadable games and the Xbox Live Marketplace itself. FEZ is the real deal, the entire package, the cream of the crop, and many other such hyperbolic buzz words. It’ll be the best $10 you’ve spent in a long time, and one of the most purely enjoyable gaming experiences you’re likely ever to see.
FEZ was released on April 13th, 2012 exclusively for Xbox 360.