Game Review: Fez

For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)

From: Polytron Corporation/Microsoft

ESRB rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)

Price: $10

Following a quick introductory level and an amusing sequence that will mess with the heads of anyone who has watched an Xbox 360 (or two, or three) fail on them, "Fez" reveals the little trick that has made its release so hotly anticipated for some four years now.

The best part? It arguably - very arguably, admittedly - isn't even the best trick in "Fez's" bag.

During that opening level, "Fez" pretty customarily makes the kind of first impression you might expect from a modern-day 2D platformer. As the obscenely cheerful Gomez, you can run, jump and climb up certain walls and ledges, and the goal - reach the exit door at the topmost point of a mostly vertical level - is so obvious that the game seems reluctant to even point it out. Because there are no enemies, time limits or consequences for failure - making a fatal jump into a perilous spot simply places you back at your jump-off point - the reluctance is understandable, because success is inevitable.

But past that point, it's a different story. "Fez's" jubilantly silly story (sort of) explains the details, but the nutshell explanation is that your flat, 2D world is now a rare combination of still flat but in three dimensions.

Essentially, like sides of a cube, a level in "Fez" consists of four flat planes instead of one. Press the right or left triggers and the entire level unflattens into a cube, rotates on its axis and flattens again.

The only exception is Gomez, who remains exactly where he was. Platforms, walls, and other objects that were perpendicular to your point of view are now parallel (or, if you rotated twice, turned inside out and reversed), and with the level flattened, objects and areas that sat far apart at one angle might be right next to each other at this angle. Hop over to that now-nearby platform, rotate the level back, and suddenly you're on the other side of the level.

"Fez's" goals - find enchanted cube pieces (among other items) and keep on unlocking and opening those exit doors - remain dead simple. But when a cube piece sits impossibly out of reach and you have to find the right sequence of rotations to get over there or trigger the sequence of events that brings it within reach, the achievement of those goals is no longer so inevitable.

The (arguable) most beautiful thing about this arrangement is that "Fez" remains reluctant to explain itself. Gomez's friends are on hand to marvel in disbelief as you rotate their entire world at will, but very little of the game's dialogue serves to explain anything beyond the absolute basics.

The deal "Fez" brokers is simple. There are no enemies, time limits, scoring systems or failure penalties, and you're free to jump back and forth between levels and solve riddles in whatever manner you discover them. In return, "Fez" tells you next to nothing about its riddles and how to even find, never mind solve, many of them. The map, though not entirely useless, seems deliberately convoluted. If you're missing a few items from an area you last visited hours earlier, finding your way back there can be as tricky as solving some of its riddles.

But getting back there isn't a chore when it entails uncovering numerous surprise discoveries along the way. "Fez" is that impossibly rare game that's deviously challenging and absurdly relaxing at the same time, and the carte blanche it provides to truly and freely explore a world that's as mysterious as it is unabashedly cheerful is a wonderful case of the journey, rather than its completion, being a game's reward. The lack of stricter structure and harsher peril is bound to turn some off, but for those who derive as much joy from discovering as they do conquering, this is not to be missed.

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