From the soothing opening synthesizer chords gracing the title screen, Fez presents itself as something unique. In the land of squares, the cube is king!
It’s hard not to consider the development history of the title, and with around five years under creator Phil Fish’s belt, this indie marvel is finally available worldwide through Xbox Live. Reviewing Fez really took me back to the days without the Internet, hearkening back to the times when you couldn’t look up walkthroughs and help guides, but in a way this helped me, it helped me to truly see how deep, complex, and downright stunning Fez really is. From a genre that’s completely out of my comfort zone, Fez came along and challenged all my preconceptions of indie platformers, proving to be an experience that I won’t soon forget.
Is this perspective shifting 8-bit platformer worth changing your views on the genre, or should it have been left in the bygone era it takes inspiration from?
Fez is a game of two halves, on one hand the core mechanic tied with the solid platforming sends you on a quest to locate cubes scattered all around the environment, but on second glance (or a second playthrough perhaps), Fez really show what it’s really about, and there’s a huge amount of hidden depth if you’ve got a pen and paper handy (or an Internet connection).
In-case you are completely new to Fez, the concept is pretty straightforward, it’s just what it does with this that will keep you guessing. Taking place in a world made of squares, the Hexahedron has been shattered, and it’s up to you, Gomez, to head out on a quest to put it back together. After you’re gifted a rather special ‘Fez’, it’s here that you learn what this apparently simple platformer really has to offer. Joined by Dot, a calling back to ‘Navi’ from Ocarina Of Time with the ‘not-so-subtle’ ‘Hey Listen’ quote, who will help you in and around the environments, it’s off you go to save the world.
Gomez has the ability at will to shift the perspective on the environment by 90 degrees in a horizontal direction, meaning that at any one time you can see four different views of the same landscape. It’s this basic core concept that makes Fez so simple to get into, yet so incredibly complex on a second glance. If you’re familiar with the perspective shifting gameplay seen in Crush (PSP/3DS) or Super Paper Mario (Wii), some of Fez’s tricks will seem familiar, but that’s just scratching the surface. Shifting your perspective allows you to cross seemingly impossible spaces, access hidden doors, and ultimately tax your brain power.
The world in which Fez resides is completely open to you, and since the core mechanic of perspective shifting doesn’t change, if you can’t get somewhere, it’s more often that not your own fault. The second layer of gameplay and puzzles offer clear visual cues, so you’ll know if you’ve stumbled upon something that you’ll need to think a little more about, not to mention bringing together clues from all over the game to solve. Along your adventures, you’ll move through many diverse environments, each usually with its own unique mechanic, ranging from special levers, water and bombs, to invisible blocks and bounce pads.
Treasure maps, Artifacts and Anti-Cubes are for those gamers who really want to get involved in the title and really see what an insane place the mind of Phil Fish really is. On a basic level you’re after cubes and keys, giving you access to doors to get more cubes. The overview map lets you see at a glance which areas you haven’t explored fully, providing clear branching paths and hints on where you may have missed a door, cube or secret. Little touches such as doors staying open when you’ve been through really allow you to see where you’ve been previously, meaning you won’t be running in circles. On a number of occasions I thought to myself “I’ve been everywhere and opened every door“, only to stumble on a seemingly obvious entrance, leading me into a completely new and huge gameplay space. The cubes that you find let you access special doors, and you’ll need a total of 32 to complete…or at least ‘see the credits’, though this is far from the real end. Giant telescopes, stone sculptures and strange symbols will sit in the back of your mind as you sleep, and inspiration may come to you at the most unusual of times.
The sounds, colours and graphics as you explore with Gomez are suited perfectly to the gameplay, providing a relaxed mood in contrast to the mind taxing gameplay. This is enhanced by the fact that you really cannot ‘fail’ as such. By getting squashed, falling off the map, or diving head first into a black hole, you’ll simply appear back in your last position for another go. It’s this key factor that really alleviates any frustration, meaning that you can have another go without being shot back to a checkpoint, and if you make a leap of faith to grab a cube, yet fall to your death afterwards, that cube is yours to keep. The world is filled with creatures, shapes, and a huge amount of varied animation which really makes jumping, climbing and exploring the environment a joy.
On a fundamental level, Fez really succeeds in making the player feel smart, the same in which way Portal did, introducing the core element early on and allowing you to experiment and play. You’ll also feel incredibly smart (either yourself, or by using Google) when you start to unearth the true puzzles of Fez. As well as the 32 cubes available, there’s also 32 anti-cubes to contend with your completionist nature, though these ones may require some serious thought. Using everything from QR codes (though these can be gathered by other means) to a special alphabet, you’ll uncover runes and totems displaying a seemingly random collection of shapes, though without spoiling anything, the sense of discovery when you start to piece it all together is second to none, and after your first playthrough, I’d seriously advise hoping on the forums to get in on all the insane fun.
Perfection is always hard to achieve, and it’s here that you can point out some ever so small holes in Fez. Stuttering loading areas, glitched blocks and some confusing navigation may attempt to mar a beautiful experience, but in the grand scheme of things, they are certainly forgettable. A fast travel option could have been nice, but it’s hardly a long trek from area to area.
Its unique art style, clever puzzles, and deep underlying complexity all come together magically to create a game that you owe yourself to give a shot. Since the core perspective flipping mechanic is so deceptively simple, it’s easy to grasp, and as you’ll get access to it within the first few minutes of the game, you’ll be flipping with perspective in no time. There’s no real precision platforming sequences, and instead it all comes down to some clever thinking to get through the open world. Going back a second time however (with the addition of some new awesome apparel) really gives you a new perspective on the world, allowing you to take a slower stroll through the environment, picking out the small details, and in-depth puzzles that Fez offers up for those after a challenge. Fez is by far one of the best titles to release via digital distribution platforms in recent memory, and will stay with you for a long time. The few little niggles pale in comparison to what the game offers, and it’s truly an awesome experience. In many ways there’s a lot more that I want to tell you about Fez, but these are things you’re best off discovering yourself, especially as it’s getting increasingly hard for a game to achieve this feeling nowadays.