The fascination with Fez extends beyond the game — a feat that few titles can claim. Although the game was announced in 2007, the small development team kept the project in the public eye with a constant barrage of screenshots, movies and updates. During that time, it was entered into plenty of contests and won lots of prizes, even though that rarely happens before people get to play the finished product. As time went on, some people were eagerly anticipating the game's release while others shunned the project as being overhyped. Nearly five years later, Fez has finally arrived on Xbox Live Arcade. No matter how you feel about the title's publicity, the time has come to judge the game on its own merits.
Fez tells the story of Gomez, a simple being who lives in a village with others in a flat, 2-D world. One morning, he wakes up to find a letter that says he'll soon partake in a grand adventure. As soon as he meets up with the sender, he has an encounter with a large cube in the sky that gives him a red fez to wear and breaks apart over his head. The next morning, after a false game crash and a return to the title screen, Gomez finds himself in his room once again — with the fez. He finds out that a spirit is with him, tasking him to find all of the pieces of the cube before the fabric of time and space is torn apart forever.
At first, the game plays out like any other side-scrolling adventure. Gomez can jump across chasms, climb up ledges to get to higher ground, and scale walls lined with ivy to safely reach higher or lower spots. He can enter and exit certain buildings as well as read signs and talk to the other inhabitants. Though there are no enemies to worry about, he can die if he falls too far or enters a time-space rift, though the penalty isn't that high since he instantly respawns on the last piece of solid ground. These are all the expected basics of a side-scrolling platformer.
Once you obtain the fez, you gain the power to rotate the world by 90 degrees at a time, and that's where the game opens up. Every piece of land is cylindrical, as is every building you enter, but you only see one side at a time, and rotating the space is the only way you'll see it all. Not only does this lead to cube pieces being hidden away in different viewpoints, but it also opens up new platforming possibilities. Similar to games like Crush and echochrome, the rules of platforming are governed by your perspective, so changing your perspective changes where you can walk or how far away a platform is. A platform that might be too far to reach, for example, can be shifted closer via a simple camera rotation while chasms can disappear if you look at it from just the right angle. You can even shift to completely different surfaces if you know where to stand before the shift. This mechanic does wonders in giving small areas lots of stuff to explore.
Your approach to the game impacts how much you'll enjoy Fez. If you're just looking to finish the main quest, then you'll find this title to be quite short. You only need to find a total of 32 large cubes to get to the end, and while there are a few slightly difficult areas, most people with good reflexes will have little to no problem. About the only issue is navigation. The world map isn't that clear about which doors lead where. When you realize that your spirit companion gives you a preview of visited rooms, you'll be able to piece together things. Until then, you'll rely on your memory to guide you.
This doesn't make the game any less fun. Exploration is part of the game's charm, and it never misses an opportunity to let you explore new areas and rooms. That constant feed of new environments, along with the rapid shift in time periods in each land, makes everything feel fresh and dynamic. It also gives you more incentive to keep going just to see the next environment.
If you are a completionist and try to find all of the game's items, the tone changes dramatically. Along with the regular cubes, you have the opportunity to open up treasure chests for keys and maps to lead you to more hidden areas. There are secret artifacts to find as well, but the bigger challenge comes from finding the 32 anti-cubes. Unlike regular cubes, the anti-cubes are hidden away so well that you'll need to enter codes via rotation or try to decipher the game's language to uncover them.
With this in play, Fez makes you observant and suspicious about everything. Appearing everywhere are symbols for controller commands, words and the alphabet, though you'll initially think of them as decorative elements. When you realize that there's something more to the symbols, you'll want to chronicle everything you see to uncover the secrets. Most of the clues are hidden away in the world, and some (like the one in the throne room) are only visible during a perspective shift.
Then there are the ones that make you think outside of the box, with clues hidden in AR codes or the Achievement list; they feed the desire to look at everything as thoroughly as possible so as not to miss a thing. It is that sort of thinking that makes the game shine. The use of outside sources was something we saw as early as StarTropics, with its letter-dipping mechanic, but here, the concept is embraced wholeheartedly as you'll need more than your brain and controller to solve all of the challenges.
The puzzles are difficult enough that the fulfillment of discovering new environments is quickly replaced by the fulfillment of solving somewhat-obtuse puzzles. There's great satisfaction to be had for solving things on your own, but because of the nature of some of the riddles, it wouldn't be surprising if you sought online help to stop your brain from hurting. In fact, due to the lack of help you'll get from your spirit companion, don't be surprised if you seek help no matter how much you want to solve everything solo. You won't be able to find every hidden piece the first time through, as certain pieces are only uncovered with a new power you gain by beating the game, so a playthrough in New Game+ mode is required for completionists.
Graphically, Fez uses new technology to look old. Polygons were used to create the characters and the world, but it does so with a pixel aesthetic. Everything from the main character to the environments is created in the pixel-type format, though it isn't bound by the rules implied by the classic 8- and 16-bit looks. The color palette is rich enough that it reaches into the 32-bit era, and while the animations aren't too silky smooth, they are much better than what you'd find in most emulated games, especially when it comes to the land rotation. The look isn't anything new, as there have been a few recent games that take advantage of the retro charm of pixels, but it still pleases the eye. The simple look doesn't mean that the game doesn't have issues, though. In a few instances, rotating the camera while against a wall can get you stuck inside a wall or make you fall into a void. Also, the frame rate seems to stutter when you enter a door and appear in an area that was faded in the background.
Like the graphics, the sound tries to blend together old and new styles to create an identity. Sound effects take on the tone of the 8-bit era, so things like item discovery are accompanied with high-pitched tones that are slightly altered to create fake depth and bass. There are a few effects that emulate ones found in classic games. The music has hints of the 8-bit era, but there are more modern instruments at play. The score is more melancholy than adventurous.
Given the amount of development time and the public nature of the game, Fez no longer seems like a revolutionary title. The puzzle mechanics has been used in several different ways in other games (that were released earlier), and the move away from realism and into a more whimsical, older look has also been done by other titles. The graphics and sound are still charming, even if it falters in a few places. More importantly, the game does a great job of throwing in a number of obtuse and brain-melting puzzles, and the sense of elation when you finally solve them is second to none. Those who love a good challenge will have some fun with this well-made puzzle platformer.
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