Ready for Adventure? A puzzling techno-spiritual journey to discover divine cosmic geometry; also owls.
Fez possesses a very immaculate magic to its isolated, abandoned atmosphere and its subtle nods to games like Myst; this sort of magnetism makes it an experience worth having in spite of any distaste one may have for retro platformers.
The story begins as Gomez, our protagonist, receives the titular hat which allows him to view the 2-dimensional world in which he lives from 4 separate angles. He is then sent off on a journey to collect the cubes that litter the world and (presumably) correct the cataclysmic event that began it all. The story is, obviously, far less important than the puzzles (and largely non-existent unless one really reaches), but the few text-based “cutscenes” are absolutely worth seeing. The giant cube that gives Gomez the hat yells nonsense like “HEY THANKS FOR HELPING ME, HERE’S A FREE HAT. YOU KNOW, I WASN’T SURE IF IT WOULD FIT BECAUSE OF YOUR WEIRD HEAD BUT IT LOOKS FINE. ANYWAY, YOU CAN GO HOME NOW, ENJOY THE HAT, AND THANKS AGAIN FOR HELPING ME FIX SPACE-TIME AND STUFF.”
Traversing the 2d-made-3d world seems, to the uninitiated, far more difficult than it is in practice: rotate the world, and objects that appear to be far off from one angle may be directly beside you from another. Rotation in itself is the key to solving many of Fez’s puzzles – traversal is a very critical element of success here. It’s this sort of deceptively complex puzzle design that initially threw me off. I was admittedly a bit disillusioned once I saw how simple the early puzzles were, but those misgivings quickly gave way to ecstatic discovery upon finding how much divergent thought went into the puzzle design.
And that’s where Fez gets straight-up bonkers.
Many of the puzzles eventually became crowd-sourcing projects: once players began encountering problems they couldn’t solve, the masses gathered on message boards, IRC chats, and everything in between discussing and attempting to come up with a solution that made sense. It’s very intriguing that a game which evokes such emotion from those who have finished it rarely says a word beyond the player’s companion, Dot, doling out hints at key points of the story, or just being incredibly useless (such as listlessly declaring “What is this?… I can’t remember” or “Uh…Sorry, I have no idea what to do”).
Some of the puzzles had me scratching my head for hours — I resorted to searching for solutions online more than once. The absolutely gleeful thing about it is that doing so did not diminish my sense of accomplishment in the least; simply executing the puzzles and seeing your handiwork set into motion is a terrific feeling. The flip-side is that a good handful of them frustrated me more after discovering the solution, because how was I ever expected to figure that stuff out? One puzzle in particular is a good example of this: various internet message boards attempted to decrypt it for almost two months, a truly impressive feat for a game which came out in 2012. To my knowledge, 2 years after the game came out, nobody knows why the solution that players essentially brute-forced for the final puzzle works.
Fez is also a very large game. Upon opening a fully-explored map, I was astounded at just how many individual areas there are. Most rooms hold a secret or treasure, and those that don’t are of direct significance to solving one or more of the puzzles. I found myself coming back to some areas more than a dozen times, trying to uncover the secrets that I hadn’t already found. This is, in itself, a joy: there is no danger, there are no enemies, and falling off a ledge simply plops you back down where you were originally. There’s a sort of zen about exploring a beautiful world with no real danger alongside a beautiful soundtrack.
The map is incredibly cumbersome to navigate. It’s a complete chore later in the game to find areas that contain puzzles or treasures you haven’t found yet, and areas that aren’t directly connected to the one you highlight completely fade out of view — on more than one occasion I found myself wondering “Well where the hell do I go now?” only to find a room that I had initially passed over while browsing the map screen.
It’s almost tragic that at some point in the journey the platforming becomes trivial; it’s truly fun and unique, and traversing the levels never becomes stale even after one truly realizes the manipulative power over the world that this sort of rotation gimmick provides. Eventually, you get used to the level design and understand almost straight-away what you need to do to progress to a new area even if you have absolutely no clue what you need to do once you’re there. Once accustomed to Fez’s rules of navigation, the player will realize that although the world is very large, and getting around is no hassle.
Fez progresses from interesting (if gimmicky) platformer to metagame-heavy puzzler in a few short hours, but the latter will keep you entertained far longer than the former. Things like hidden QR codes, treasure maps, your system’s clock, and your controller’s rumble motors all play a key role in collecting all the cubes that are tucked away in this 4-dimensional dream-scape. The experience is very reminiscent of a time before the internet, when you couldn’t just go to Gamefaqs or somebody’s blog and find a solution to a puzzle – you had to do all the leg-work on your own. I found it nearly impossible to solve most of the more obscure puzzles without keeping a notebook and a pencil handy, and just having ideas written on paper often led to being able to solve a puzzle. It’s these sort of “a-ha!” moments in which Fez’s true sense of accomplishment comes into play.
Overall, Fez is an aesthetically beautiful game with breathtaking set-pieces and fantastic use of color whose puzzles rely more on brainpower and meta-game than platforming. The PS4 version runs at a solid 60 frames per second, something which could be said of neither the Xbox 360 or PC versions at release, and it feels great to play it on a d-pad that isn’t the Xbox 360 controller’s. It’s also largely bug-free; there are some physics oddities when solving the block-moving puzzles, but that’s mostly due to the nature of being able to rotate the world.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC, PS3, PS4 (reviewed), Vita, Xbox 360; Developer: Polytron Corporation; Players: 1; Released: April 13 2012 (X360), May 1 2013 (PC), March 25 2014 (PS3/PS4/Vita); Genre: Puzzle/Platformer; MSRP: $9.99