It’s important to point out that Fez is a title that comes with a little more coverage and anticipation then most Arcade titles, having been awarded many plaudits and high praise even before its release. It is, at its most basic level, a platform puzzler set in a expansive world that encourages you to seek out items. In turn these items allow you to open up previously inaccessible areas and locations.
You are Gomez, living a quiet and happy life in a bright 2D world. One morning you receive a package in the mail that summons you to the top of the village to meet one of its residents.
What happens next both bestows Gomez with a powerful magical artifact that shows a world so much larger then all he has known before, but also allows that world to come under threat.
That artifact is a Fez hat. It allows the wearer to see into the Third Dimension and sets the rules for the adventure to follow, separating it out from other games of its genre with an inventive new twist on the gameplay.
To say the game plays out in a 3D world would only be partly true. Although built in 3D from exclusively cube based structures, Gomez is still only 2D so you can now navigate in the 3D world using the rules of 2D platformer. Rotate the view of the world and you’ll find the layout changes in front of your eyes.
The way things are rotated and viewed dictates how they work. At the most basic level this means if something is too far away to jump to, then rotating the world might bring it closer and open up a new path. This is a simplistic, but deceptively deep play mechanic to build a game around.
Rotating the world allows for a new basis in level progression and puzzle solving, a foundation on which to build a complex world filled with ever more challenging problems and solutions. Each new location discovered is filled with freedom of experimentation that sometimes allows for multiple solutions. Tricks of the eye are implemented in such a way that their effect on the environment can actually be a rewarding revelation, one that helps to feed the thrill of discovery and the delight over a discovered solution. You’re challenged by what’s in front of you but not frustrated; a difficult thing to pull off, but Fez manages it perfectly.
Eventually new means to play around with this rotation mechanic are introduced, from gears and timed pistons that turn objects in the world create new paths, to bombs that blow open holes in walls to allow progress.
What’s most impressive is just how smooth things are when transitioning between different views. One moment you could be standing on the middle of a level and the instant you turn the world you’re now on the corner of another. The game is also very forgiving – yes, you might attempt a leap when you think you’ve found the correct path of progression and tumble to your doom, but you’re always planted back in place, no harm done. There’s no lives or any sign of a derivative sidekick to berate you.
One of the things that you’ll take away from your time in Fez is just how meticulously designed the whole experience is. There’s a clear artistic vision here and even an argument that there’s a deep thought experiment going on. At several points in the game you are deliberately and cleverly taken out of Gomez’s world and given the option to use things in the real world to progress. The game is filled with fun `nudge-winks` to the player as if to say, “we know it’s just a game, let’s have fun”. These are mostly tied around the discovery of the games second collectable, the anti-cube.
Noted for being harder to find then normal cubes, these are used to play with the fourth wall to great effect. Look in the Achievements and you’ll find one simply called `Achievement Unlocked`. The only way to unlock this anti-cube is the act of doing something connected, but also separate, from the games main activities. Not everyone will be interested in Achievements and so some will discover it much later than others, but to those who look at Achievement lists in games, there’s the developers saying “Hey! Look here! Have this…”.
Fez is certainly all about the joy of discovery in the game world and that’s a theme it also wants you to apply in the real one. Via hidden messages posted on its walls and using our understanding of how we look at things in life, it brings with it a brilliant and entertaining way to interact with the game beyond a controller or camera. It rewards you for trying things you might not have thought of, by itself doing things that haven’t been attempted before.
Another example of this delicate and deliberate design is in the world layout. The game’s 3D world map is built from little windows onto each location. At first it feels daunting and a confused mess of cubes and lines that would take forever to dissect. However, it’s easy to adapt to and becomes an exceedingly useful tool in locating places you have yet to go, and things you have yet to find. It’s impressive that the concept of world map design could not only be re-constructed so completely, but actually work to aid progress. For a game as expansive (in literally every direction) as Fez ends up, it’s frankly a necessity. You can freely rotate and move around this screen looking for clues and items – although it’s not quite perfect, sometimes it’s fiddly to move through unlocked locations and depending on the angle you’re viewing you can end up looking at a different areas than you had planned.
Another small issue lies with the games load times. Constructed from dozens of small locations, for the most part there’s very little issue with moving between each section, though over time there can be the ever increasing issues of loading. Some times this can just be a slight juddering to the visual transition between stages, other times it can actually slow down the game in a new area for a few moments. This isn’t game breaking but can cause some issues in the early navigation of a level. You might attempt the first jump in an area, only to suddenly slow down and miss a well timed landing. This doesn’t last for more than a few moments and is only occasional, but there have been reports of some areas taking a little while to load or popping out and re-loading a moment after. We didn’t see this happen more than once during our time with the game, but a patch to fix this issue is also apparently in the works as we speak.
The highlight of the Fez experience is the world in which you are free to explore in; each door leads to a new place that’s utterly charming and alive, filled with history both a written and organic form that’s striking in its believability. From the small cube rooms that contain secrets or messages from the characters who dwell within, to new larger locations visible in the distance and full of potential adventure. Each place in which you arrive is lovingly detailed with vibrantly animated creatures, even down to having worms and caterpillars, all of it is beautifully and painstakingly animated. Just walking around any of the locations you stumble across is a joy and something that you would want to take in for as long as possible – if it weren’t for the new lands in the distance beckoning you on.
The soundtrack also helps sell the world, filling it with strongly haunting, deeply beautiful and naturalistic ambient sounds and tunes. Jungles feel moist and alive; a rain covered graveyard feels dread-filled and creepy and the sewer system echoic and muted.
You’ll likely finish your first journey through Fez without seeing everything. There are plenty of mysteries and the compulsion to return is strong. It’s also brilliant at giving you that motivation to come back, not only through the addition of New Game+ but in presenting a world you’ll never get tired of exploring and playing with.
Fez presents those who enter it with one of the most deeply heart warming and endlessly creative puzzle platformers ever crafted. Each moment is filled with a feeling joy, of being endlessly rewarding and utterly compelling. That’s before you’ve seen one of the (you must me warned here) most insane art house pre-credit sequences ever constructed. Really, you have been warned!
After such a long wait, it’s something of a relief that Fez earns all the gushing positivity its managed to garner before now, with the sheer quality of its experience. It all culminates in a deeply creative, challenging and joyous gameplay experience from start to finish and is well worth anyone’s time.