Fez Review (360)
The concept of a “Summer of Arcade” has always been strange. Sure, it makes sense to have showcase games all released within a short time frame, but it highlights the rest of the years releases as inferior titles. “If this game was REALLY good, it would come out during the summer of arcade”, you might say. Arriving as it does at the high point of the release schedule, Fez has clearly been identified as a big release for Microsoft and many critics have already judged it to be the best of the crop. Amongst brilliant titles like Trials Evolution, this little indie darling is being touted as just as essential – if not more so – than many of its higher profile rivals. The question is, how good is Fez?
Initial impressions are hopeful optimism tinged with scepticism. This is another retro-flavoured platformer much in the same vein as Super Meat Boy. There have been a lot of games with very similar graphical styles in this genre recently. Sure, it has its own interpretation of retro pixel visuals, but if you’ve seen VVvvvvvvvvvv (is that enough V’s) and Super Meat Boy and Sugar Cube you will have a good idea of what to expect.
Fez’s stand out feature is the way it allows you to rotate your viewpoint ninety degrees to see the 2D game world from another perspective. This effects looks good in game and is the fundamental gameplay mechanic you will use to solve puzzles and progress through the game. By turning what appears to be a 2D game world, you see how it is actually represented as a 3D environment. You open up new paths to follow, changing the nature of the levels entirely. This is relatively hard to describe in words, but after moments of playing with the feature in-game you will get the idea. Both Echochrome and Crush used similar ideas, but in Fez its both better implemented and more interesting.
Because its so easy to rotate the game world (you simply press the shoulder buttons to rotate left or right) you can move quickly between the different views and solve the puzzles you face. Well, most of the puzzles. We’ll discuss the “other type” of puzzles later in the review. For the most part though, you will be moving the viewpoint around to get to areas of the map you couldn’t before to collect cube pieces. These cube pieces open the world up further, and acquisition of them is the primary goal of the game.
In many ways Fez seems like a game from an alternate dimension. In this world the classic titles from the 8 bit era like Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy were not forgotten, but instead became the mainstream titles of their day and were built upon and refined. This is a world where polygons weren’t the norm. Instead, pixels remained the building blocks of our game worlds. In this bizarre game world there are no modern war based first person shooters. Instead, there are chip tunes, giant pixels, bizarre narratives about magic hats and brutal difficulty spikes.
That last point isn’t entirely accurate. Fez isn’t brutally difficult, at least in the conventional sense. You can complete the campaign easily enough and with a bit of perseverance you can even find most of the cube fragments without racking your brains too much. However, much like games from the 8-bit era, Fez is entirely happy to leave almost half the game completely unexplained to the player. Its only when you check your game progress, and realise that (like dark matter) there’s only a portion of the games content that’s been encountered, that you know how much you have missed.
Fez is a game that could be easily “spoiled”. I have already hinted that the revolving world puzzles are only one aspect of the game. I am not going to talk about the other too much. Suffice it to say that there is a great deal more to Fez than first meets the eye, and the developers are keen on leaving the player base to figure things out for themselves. There have been games with hidden secrets that players took a long time to discover, but when it comes to hiding things from you, nothing rivals Fez. Phil Fish really wasn’t fucking around when he decided to create a game that was thoroughly old school. If you think Simon’s Quest was obtuse about giving you direction, you aint seen nothing yet.
The fact that there hasn’t been a game like Fez in such a long time has had two palpable effects on gamers. First of all, it creates a great deal of nostalgia for what would today be considered “bad design”. This is a game that delights on giving you no tutorial, deliberately refuses to explain fundamentals of the gameplay and has sections where you will become completely stumped with no help or hints provided. This has given rise to the second effect; it has created a community of players working together to solve the games difficult puzzles. There are few games that are so difficult that you can’t find a walkthrough on-line within hours of their release, but Fez is so difficult that even a dedicated playerbase working TOGETHER – sharing solutions and clues – still took days and even weeks to crack the games hardest puzzles. In a way this sharing and collaboration has created a communal experience that supersedes the game. For those working hard on a particular puzzle, there’s the very real possibility that they could be the first person in the world to solve it. As a result, the satisfaction of solving parts of the game is huge.
To go with this though, there’s levels of associated frustration you don’t see in modern games. You can be “stuck” in Fez for long periods of time, and playing with a guide diminishes the experience significantly.
All of this makes Fez a hard game for me to review. I love the visuals and music, but the platforming gameplay was fundamentally dull to me. The concept is clever, but after ten levels of world spinning I got very bored with it. This is compounded by a 3D map system that may or may not be intentionally obtuse and difficult to follow. As a result, I was often retracing my steps and got totally lost. Little touches like a day and night cycle and an intriguing storyline were the only things that kept me going through gameplay I found incredibly dull.
While the puzzles that involve rotating the world are limited, the more complicated puzzles are not of the type I enjoy at all. I’ve danced around the puzzles in the game as much as possible, but suffice it to say that obscure cryptography is involved and it is not something that I enjoy. This is a game where your notepad is not just useful but essential. While I may have loved the community aspect when the game was first released, now so much has already been discovered that I feel like I’m still on the starting blocks while everyone has crested the horizon.
There are still amazing discoveries to be made – such as the changes to the game that occur after you finish it for the first time – but nonetheless I cannot honestly say I enjoyed Fez. Its a brave, ambitious and original title, and I can’t wait to see what Phil Fish makes next. Despite all this, I can’t help but think that maybe Fez simply isn’t as good as we all want it to be. Many of you out there are tired of modern releases and yearn for titles from the past to remind us what used to be great about games. Maybe I’m just a bit more positive about the games of today than most others. In the end though, I think Fez tells us more about what was wrong with games from the past than what is wrong with games today.
6 out of 10
Feature by Chrissy Welsh