Fez made quite a splash when it debuted in 2007, receiving widespread praise and awards at the Independent Games Festival 2008. Its signature concept of manipulating a three-dimensional cubic world by shifting between its four flat sides was immediately eye-catching, and more importantly, caused imaginations to run wild with the inventive possibilities it promised. Since then - a lifetime ago by the standards of today's ever-changing game-space - the feeling of unease was undeniable as time rolled on without any word on Fez, as hope held out that creator Phil Fish's vision would see the light of day.
With that in mind, I'm pleased, and a little relieved, to say that the long wait has been worthwhile. Fez delivers on many of its promises, presenting a world which plays clear homage to the classic bit adventures that came before it, while still feeling very modern in design - there's a timeless quality to it.
Meticulously crafted at every turn, the true nature of Fez's ambition only becomes clear after many hours of play, making its extended, rocky development come as no surprise. Fez quietly disguises itself as a playful platformer, with one clever gameplay hook and a handful of puzzles tossed in for good measure. Eventually, it's obvious you've been deceived, that behind the welcoming retro-inspired aesthetic lies an extremely cerebral, shockingly deliberate puzzler at its core. This realization makes Fez unique in so many ways, going far beyond its perspective-shifting antics and showing an incredible attention to detail. While there are missteps along the way - clumsy navigation, excessive backtracking and obtuse objectives - Fez's numerous victories far outweigh them.
From the outset, players awake to a world in transition. Gomez, the game's sprite-like protagonist, finds his cheerful, flat village rocked by the chaotic arrival of cubes and the third dimension. It's up to him to uncover the source of this change, as time and space are gradually ripped apart in the process. After that initial setup, like any good old-school game, Fez's story trappings quickly get out of the way in favour of exploration and progression. This leaves the world's little NPCs to add context, with clever winks and nods to gaming tropes and conventions.
As mentioned above, one of the first things players will notice about Fez is the perspective-changing way levels are navigated. It's a world fully realized in 3D, but you'll only ever interact with the four 2D sides of its cubic surfaces. This all happens in realtime, giving players the freedom to change perspectives at will, and by doing so, revealing new pathways, items and secrets. It's a unique, expertly-designed and well-executed approach to platforming, one which makes even routine jumps interesting and frequently leads to mind-bending challenges.
All of this traversal occurs within the context of an open world that actively encourages exploration. Aside from explaining the mechanics of progression (collecting scattered magical cube fragments), Fez leaves almost everything else up to interpretation, from which path to take to what information is relevant. Exploring the colourful, detailed and varied environments is a treat thanks to the dynamic day/night cycles, wildlife and context-specific events which alter stages as you progress. Fez's conscious decision to have essentially no penalty for death or fail-state also encourages experimentation. There are no enemies and falling simply resets to your last stable position, allowing for a great deal of risk-taking in the name of discovery. That being said, there are some issues which make navigating the world frustrating at times. The most obvious of these being the convoluted and clumsy world map. Granted, the nature of Fez makes displaying all the information on one screen challenging, and I'm not sure of a more elegant solution, but that doesn't absolve it entirely. The infrequent and scattered warp gates, which allow for express travel throughout the world, also lead to substantial backtracking. This can become tedious late in the game, once all but a few remote areas are of any relevance.
Being a puzzle-platformer, exploration also means encountering a few brain-teasers along the way. These puzzles initially appear straightforward and conventional enough... rotating a platform here, stacking a block there, and so on. However, once the world of Fez starts to truly take shape, any semblance of casual platforming gives way to what the game actually is: an extremely cerebral, shockingly deliberate puzzler. You soon realize that every piece of art, line of dialogue and collectible item - which you had dismissed simply as window-dressing for the sake of world-building - are all subtly connected to a series of meta-puzzles throughout the game. At its extreme, this means deciphering a foreign language to uncover encrypted riddles that lead to secret areas and treasures. The thought that went into crafting these incredibly complicated later puzzles is nothing short of amazing.
The realization that Fez quietly holds what amounts to a second game beneath the surface leads to a strange feeling once you've "finished it", or in other words, seen the credits. This is because it only takes a combined 32 of the 64 total cubes and anti-cubes to accomplish - cubes resulting from traversal and anti-cubes from puzzle-solving. For me, this meant obtaining 10 of the 32 anti-cubes, which was merely the tip of iceberg. Fez practically begs players to immediately start a New Game+ campaign to see even a fraction of the most-thoroughly hidden content.
Successfully solving these puzzles creates a brief, euphoric sense of accomplishment in between hours of banging your head against a pixelated wall. The latter part of that statement speaks to the main problem with Fez's commitment to its hands-off, old school approach - objectives are rarely clear and crucial information often feels artificially out of reach. This doesn't necessarily mean the puzzles are poorly designed, it simply means that only the most obsessive die-hards will have the patience to unlock the secrets to many of these baffling puzzles.
Ultimately, whether you're platforming or puzzle-solving, Fez's audio/visual presentation is undeniably beautiful. The retro-themed, pixelated environments are rendered with vibrant colour, impressive detail and dynamic events to make them feel surprisingly modern. As time goes on, levels turn from day to night, wildlife responds to your actions and weather changes, all of which creates the sense of a living, breathing world. The game's sound design also goes a long way, providing catchy, melodic backgrounds to help change the tone of each level. The only noticeable drawback to this otherwise fantastic package appears when the game stutters during loading sequences.
Fez is yet another testament to the creative freedom the console downloadable space has offered so many memorable games this generation. Its unique approach to platforming leads to expertly-designed environments and its puzzles are consistently inventive. Everything from the placement of everyday objects to the incredibly intricate puzzles feels meticulously poured over and deliberate, resulting in an experience unlike any other. Not without its share of flaws, Fez nevertheless succeeds in delivering on its lofty ambitions, belonging alongside other greats in the space such as Bastion and Journey. When all is said and done, it's heartwarming to see a long, seemingly rocky development process produce such an inspired result.
|Inventive perspective changes|
|Incredibly complex puzzles|
|At times unclear objectives|