A Fez for All Occasions
“Fez is a 2D platformer with distinctly beautiful, retro-inspired visuals.” Well, no. “Rather, it is a 3D puzzler throwback to games of the 8-bit era.” Also not quite right. The truth is that it is all of the above, all melded into one large, ambitious package of a game, starring one small fez-clad protagonist who has just discovered a life-changing secret: there’s a third dimension to his flat world that had been all but forgotten about by its inhabitants. Now, armed with the skill to bend his environments to his will and take advantage of both 2D and 3D sensibilities, he sets out to reclaim lost artifacts and solve some seriously mind-bending puzzles in this charming gem of a game sure to delight gamers of all ages.
Fez has been in the public eye for nigh on five years now, and anybody who has picked up wind of it during that time is sure to be curious and interested as to how it all played out. In short, Fez will not disappoint said gamers, living up to even the loftiest of expectations with its unassumingly spartan and yet surprisingly sophisticated design.
A New Dimension
Developer Polytron kept things simple when it came to Fez’s premise and puzzle-solving: the game world is depicted at all times as a two-dimensional space, with objects only having height and width. Therefore, two items in the game world, be they buildings, trees, rocks, what have you, that are placed one behind the other, appear to share the same space, with the taller object simply sticking out over the shorter one. Fez (though that’s not his name; we’ll call him Fez since he wears one) wakes up one day and is called to the village elder, where he is entrusted with the secret knowledge of the mysterious third dimension: depth. Suddenly, things take on a whole new perspective for Fez, who can, with the press of a button, rotate the entire world 90° either clockwise or counter-clockwise, re-arranging objects instantaneously. Suddenly, what appeared to be a simple shallow wall turns out to be a grand construction, stretching into the distance. What appeared to be one tall tree standing in a clearing is revealed to be a row of trees, one behind the other, providing makeshift steps to a far-off ledge. Fez does not have any other abilities or unlockable super powers; being able to change perspectives and switch which dimensions are displayed on-screen at any given time is all you’ll need, and is built into each and every one of the game’s myriad puzzles.
The puzzles are the game’s main focus; while you’ll be platforming your way through the environments, Fez is as much of a cerebral exercise as anything else you’ve ever played. Three-dimensional thinking, given that we live our very lives in 3D, is surprisingly challenging, and applying 3D concepts to a 2D landscape remains – even after hours and hours spent leaping about in Fez‘s brilliant surroundings – an exercise in brain-stretching leaps and bounds. Once you initiate a dimensional twist, you’re given a brief glimpse at the actual 3D environment while it’s shifting – it’s this peek at Fez’s true surroundings that you’ll need to use to make your next move.
Seeing in 3D
As I’ve already mentioned, Fez takes 2D graphics back to olden times, making even antiquated graphics look “old school”. Objects and environments are delightfully pixellated, backgrounds have been purposely kept flat and one-dimensional, and the game’s menu screen looks like something from an old Atari version of Space Invaders. Perhaps part of the developer’s mindset when choosing this look was the knowledge that seeing decidedly dated graphics represented in three dimensions is as impressive as watching a tech demo for the newest tricked out PC gaming rig; you easily forget what you’re looking at and simply open yourself up to being astounded by the concept.
The guys at Polytron certainly injected a large dose of humor into their game as well. Fez is joined on his journey by a “helpful” floating cube who provides him with the occasional helpful piece of information; seeing an owl sitting on a statue, she (it?) quips sardonically: “Owls creep me out.” At one point, she actually makes her presence known by repeating that well-known and less-loved catchphrase of a certain fantasy fairy: “Hey! Listen!” The game also charmed the pants off me early on after Fez received knowledge of the third dimension; the game restarted itself, running back through the developer’s logo, title screen, etc, just to pick up where it left off, signaling that this was now truly a different game than before Fez’s revelation.
Despite my crazed rantings and ravings about the beguiling style and execution of Fez, a number of things kept the game from reaching a higher level of nirvana than it already has. The most telling of these is a direct result of the nature of the gameplay, as well as a testament to the difficulty of its puzzles: after investing an initial capital of time into the game, players will likely hit a wall eventually, at which point it becomes difficult to play for longer increments. Due to the hellish challenge of some of its later puzzles, Fez may well become a guilty pleasure, something reserved for shorter play sessions to unwind at the day’s end. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into. (Less hardcore players, meanwhile, may be too intimidated and decide to throw in the towel completely.) The other gripe I have is with the game’s map and navigation system; while the map displays which rooms still have secrets left to uncover, navigating and reaching the desired room becomes burdensome quite quickly, and at later points of the game I would have preferred some sort of instant navigation to specific chambers I’d visited previously, rather than be forced through the same platforming I’d done before. Minor gripes, but worth noting.
The Final Verdict
While Fez seems to have been stuck in development hell for a number of years and has now released to little fanfare on Xbox LIVE, it does not disappoint and offers a more-than-worthwhile experience for both the platform enthusiast as well as the puzzle nut. Even more worthy of praise is its beautifully clean and retro aesthetic, coupled with its gameplay that’s always just one step ahead of you and never quite lets you wrap your mind around it. At a download price of only 800 MS Points ($10), Fez transcends dimensions and will be a game still talked about for a long time to come. The game (and its visionary developers) deserves nothing less than our highest praise for a gaming experience unlike any other!