There are games with longer dev cycles, but few have been as highly anticipated as Polytron Corporation’s Fez. The indie platformer created by Phil Fish started turning heads back in 2008 when it won an award for “Excellence in Visual Art” at the Independent Games Festival. Two years later it still hadn’t been released, but an Xbox Live Arcade version of the game was confirmed. It’s now been another two years, and Fez is officially here and exclusive to XBLA. Which means that it’s finally time to consider the question: was it worth the wait?
Here’s your one-word review, the only fact you really need to know from here on out to help you decide whether or not you should play Fez: Yes.
One thousand times yes.
Fez is ceaselessly clever, both in terms of its presentation and the quality of its puzzles. The intro sequence alone will leave many players cackling with joy as it reveals itself in full. The basic puzzle-solving conceit of being able to rotate the world around you left and right at 90 degree angles provides plenty of head-scratchers early on, but even that simple concept evolves in a multitude of directions before long. The game constantly challenges you redefine your understanding of its rules as you puzzle your way through its unique world.
In the simplest terms, Fez is all about perspective play. The spirit of games like the recent Crush 3D and Echochrome constantly haunt you, but the puzzles you’re presented with here are far more elaborate. At first you’ll just flip every “room” around in a circle as you look for glowing golden cube bits, nine of which together form a full cube. As you collect an increasing number of these, you’ll be able to unlock doors leading into different parts of the world.
The first hours of gameplay are relatively simple and straightforward, though they get by on the freshness alone. You haven’t played anything quite like this before. You’ll occasionally come across oblique puzzle elements like treasure maps or significant-looking standing stones with no obvious purpose, but you’ll quickly fly by them as you zero in on easier objectives in each of the content-packed world’s “rooms.” New elements are introduced very gradually, like stones that can be held in place as you rotate the world or cranks that let you spin platforms around independently of your own perspective shifts.
Before you know it, there’s a ‘click’ and you’re spinning the scenery around while your little Fez-wearing hero character is mid-jump. There’s an immense amount of satisfaction to be had in working through some of the heftier brain-stumpers that start to pop up in the mid-game. The first time you spin the world around to make a series of platforms more accessible as you scale a sky-high tree is revelatory.
There’s a lot to be said as well for the audiovisual presentation. Sure, the 8-bit craze isn’t as much of a novelty as it was when Fish first revealed his game five years ago. The difference between Fez and most of the other 8-bit revivals, however, is that you’re always thinking in terms of a 3D space. What you’re left with is a feeling that you’re exploring this cool landscape mash-up of the retro and the modern. The chiptune soundtrack is also always present, providing a constant background din from deep-down rumbles all the way up to ear-piercing shrieks.
Just like any other worthwhile experience, the best bits of Fez are those that are best left for you to discover yourself. The only real complaint is that you might have some trouble discovering them. As well-put-together as this game is, it is also burdened with a sizable, inescapable flaw: your ability to move through the world and know where you are within it is constantly hindered by what may be one of the worst world maps in video games. Figuring out how to read it is like a puzzle unto itself, and seemingly not by design. Some method for moving more quickly from one place to another — warp gates are a common sight, but they’re also limited in how you can interact with them — would have been welcome.
That minor issue also, in some ways, adds to the charm. It’s a bit tedious to constantly work your way through the same areas over and over again, but you’ll also frequently find things that you missed, whether because you didn’t notice them or didn’t know that about the world. Fez is a game that rewards exploration as much as it does clever, outside-the-box thinking. It’s easily one of the strongest puzzle/platformers available on Xbox Live Arcade or any other platform, and it’s one that you should definitely check out if you’re a fan of such experiences.
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Microsoft Studios)