Review: Fez

Fez

Imagine living your life in a flat world, where everything is accessible by simply walking left or right (and maybe jumping up or down). Life would be plain and simple. But what if one day you are told that the world has depth? Not the kind of depth that allows you to simply reach out and grab that mug of coffee in front of you, but rather your flat world has three more sides to it, and those sides can only be seen from the same flat perspective. Rotate your world 90 degrees and suddenly a wall you’ve never seen before makes up your current plane of existence.

This is Fez in a nutshell. A very rich and complex nutshell from the mind of Phil Fish and Polytron.

Fez stars Gomez, an adorable young chap from a small 2D village, who learns that his world is not what he thought it was: flat. Gomez heads off on a mission to collect yellow cubes (which are sometimes whole, but more often are broken up into 8 bits) to restore the balance of the universe. In order to do this, Gomez must work his way through the world by climbing, jumping, and shifting the perspective of his flat world to collect the cubes, which are necessary to unlock doors and propel further exploration through the game.

Fez is not an easy game to describe, other than to say that it is a puzzle-solving platformer heavily influenced by old-school traditions. But there is so much more to it than that. Puzzles are presented throughout the world with very little indication or direction on how to solve them. Except that isn’t entirely true. Subtle clues are laid out throughout the world, which to the keen observer will provide the key to solving most puzzles. An alphabet and number system have been constructed through a series of symbols made up by placing patterns in cubes. These symbols are then tattooed throughout the world (some as hieroglyphs, others as direct conversations with other people in the world). Many of these symbol groupings give direct instruction in how to solve a puzzle, while others are cryptic as hell and often require time away from the game in order to allow the solution to calculate in the back of your brain.

I find the game to be both deeply rewarding and yet at the same time, very frustrating. The side-scrolling exploration is a true joy. Puzzling out the physical world one plane of view at a time is challenging yet satisfying. But having to scribble down a new alphabet and numeric system and essentially learn a new language is almost asking a bit too much for my head. Puzzle clues lean toward retro gaming references, many of which are lost on me. Having to scribble down words is one thing, but then having to look up more than half of the clue references in order to solve puzzles takes away a lot of the fun.

Following a binary math pattern, Gomez needs to find 2 cubes to open one door, 4 cubes to open a second, 8 to open a third, 16 to open a fourth, and 32 to open a final door. However, once 16 cubes are found and Gomez enters that realm, the mind blowing aspect of the game really takes hold: another doorway requires 64 cubes in order to unlock the secrets held within. I love puzzle games. I admit I’m not terribly good at them sometimes. But the daunting task of finding 32 cubes was challenging enough. I can’t imagine dedicating so much time deciphering every nuance laid out plain as day (albeit in code) just to see what is behind door number six.

I would agree that Fez provides many fun experiences along the way to finding even 32 cubes, but the biggest problem with that journey is the map. Similar to how the game world works, the map can be rotated and zoomed in or out to get a better sense of what hasn’t been explored. A nice touch that the map provides is a visual cue by means of gold outline on any room or world that has had all cubes or puzzles solved. The problem with the map, though, is that it is like a three-dimensional logic chart. One realm of the world may have six or seven rooms branching out of it, or a branch that leads to an entirely new realm, but it does not clearly indicate how to get to some of those rooms or new realms. I often found myself doubling back through areas six or seven times trying to figure out how the hell to get to an area that I had clearly not been to before.

But it is hard to stay mad or frustrated at the game when the music is so calming and the visuals are so striking. While the world at first glance would seem to be very simple in design, the level of detail is mind blowing. The level of interconnections made between each plane of a world is so thoughtfully planned and the richness of the world as a whole is indicative of how much love was put forth in creating the game. One odd thing I encountered with the game is the fact that when I played at full resolution (1680×1050 or even lesser resolutions) the game adds black bars at the top and sides. While the game has a higher resolution it is forced to be viewed in a smaller frame which frankly sucks. Even after a patch (or two–version 1.07 at the time of this writing) the game still displays with the bars. The only way to view the game while using the full real estate of my monitor forced me to kick the resolution down to basically 720p. The case could be made that since the game is only pushing retro style block art, the game doesn’t need to be seen at such a high resolution, but on the other hand, this is an issue that is not isolated to me. Being an indie developer will give you some leeway from gamers, but not fixing something as critical as this is just as baffling as some of the puzzles in the game.

As I alluded to above, the music in the game adds a richness equal to the visuals. A complex mix of chip tune melodies, the music of Fez helps to evoke the calm serenity of most sections of the game, but also enhances the dread and excitement of others. Listening to the game with 5.1 surround sounds adds to the effect that the game is basically a cube viewed from one side at a time as the music dampens or increases depending on which side of the cube Gomez stands on. This is a really cool touch and one that adds more immersion to the game.

Like many games, the journey is where the experience is had, not at the end. Fez is no exception. Solving three-dimensional puzzles while forced to view them in a fixed plane adds a fun twist to what could otherwise be a tired exercise. At first blush the game is a simple puzzle platformer, but quickly it ramps up to a deep homage to games from the past. Given that the game was released a year ago on the 360, there are some folks who may not have had the chance to play the game on their platform of choice. Unfortunately even with the passing of a year between then and the new PC version, there are many issues that crop up. Is this a game that should be played? Yes — especially if you love a deep, challenging puzzler rife with retro gaming references. But does it come off without a few puzzling design flaws? Not as of this writing.

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Pros:
+ Fun twist on 3D puzzles viewed from a flat 2D perspective
+ A treasure trove of gaming references
+ Enchanting music

Cons:
– Higher resolutions don’t display correctly
– Many puzzles require too much note taking
– World map is not as helpful as it could be

Game Info:
Platform: PC (also previously released on Xbox 360)
Publisher: Trapdoor
Developer: Polytron Corporation
Release Date: 5/1/2013
Genre: 2D Platformer/Puzzle
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.