Shifting Dimensions and Consoles
When Microsoft first announced they were getting into the videogame industry, I was perturbed. I felt they were just looking to cash in and didn’t care about unique and iconic experiences. And while there’s plenty of games on Xbox I could care less about, my stance towards Microsoft has gradually softened over the years. Mostly because I’ve seen how dedicated they are to supporting and promoting indie games. One I kept hearing about in particular was FEZ. I didn’t know much about it, other than it was pixelated, and people either loved it or hated it. I just never thought I’d be able to offer my own opinion. Then, FEZ was recently announced as coming to Nintendo Switch, and I knew I had to play it. Keep reading to see if this one-time Xbox exclusive met the expectations of this Switch platformer enthusiast.
The Call To Adventure
FEZ starts simply enough. Young Gomez is called to adventure by Geezer, the one-eyed elder in his village. He climbs to the top and is confronted with the majesty of something that shouldn’t exist in a flat world – the hexahedron. Gomez is granted the titular head covering, and then things get weird. As he learns to shift the world around by using the shoulder buttons, suddenly, the cube starts shaking and cracking apart. It erupts into an explosion of tetrominoes, and it seems reality itself has been sundered. The start screen reappears, but it’s glitching out in weird ways. Thus began my journey into the strange world of FEZ.
The Mysteries of the Cubes
Upon returning to Gomez’s village, you’re confronted by a talkative little mote called Dot. They inform you that you’ll need to repair the damage you wrought by collecting cubes. There are supposedly 32 of them, but there’s a catch. Most of the cubes have been split into 8 cube bits. So you’ll have a lot of collecting to do to find them all. As you progress through the game, you’ll encounter doors that can be unlocked once you’ve found sufficient cubes. So the game naturally has you explore and progressively find more areas to wander around in. It’s very non-linear, and you’re pretty much left to your devices, other than the occasional hint from Dot.
A Whole Cube World
I liked this format at first, especially since FEZ is much more of a puzzle platformer than a straight platformer game. While I am very confident in my platforming skills, I’m not nearly so when it comes to my puzzling ability. Plus, I’m hardwired to get really upset when I get stuck or lost in a game. So I went into the adventure with a bit of uncertainty. I found things went well initially, but when the game really opened up, I started to hit brick walls. A big reason for that is how FEZ is structured.
Are We There Yet?
As a reminder, the vast majority of the puzzling is handled by rotating the screen left or right. Just like a cube, you only have 4 rotations you can make before you’re back where you started. I’m fine with this, but it can lead to some confusion. While I like how you can shorten the distance between two points by rotating the screen, all the world spinning can sometimes make me dizzy. It’s also pretty easy to miss a doorway as you’re exploring. And that’s before you even take into account all the hidden exits, locked doors, portals, and more. But by far, the part of the game that gave me the most guff is the map.
Put simply, the map in FEZ gave me conniptions. Just as the game is about exploring a 2D world in 3 dimensions, the map is displayed in a 3D format with 2D icons. I almost wish it wasn’t. There are tons of branching paths, and you can only see so much of the map at a time. Plus, I found that parts of the map would often flicker or disappear without reason, making it a pain to plot my path. I slowly started to appreciate the map as I played, but it never quite became intuitive. Sure, I liked how gold frames indicated if I’d found everything in the area, but it’s awkward the areas don’t have any clear designations. Not even a name or number, just visual icons used to denote the main structure found within.
Given that I function better with a clear and understandable format, this made FEZ more challenging than it probably should have been. Which isn’t to say I couldn’t progress in the game. I’m just ashamed to admit I was utterly perplexed about moving forward and eventually found myself looking for clues online. I only did this a few times since I figured the statute of gamer limitations doesn’t apply to a port this many years later. One thing my research taught me was that the game takes its esoteric elements seriously. You’ll see odd tetromino hieroglyphs throughout the game. Imagine my surprise when I learned that they actually convey useful information! Including how to solve some really confusing puzzles (looking at you, bell tower).
Get Ready to Sleuth
While a part of me is impressed by the game’s dedication to small details, I found this sort of thing more perplexing than admirable. Especially when there were secret doors just waiting to be unlocked, but I was hesitant to rely on any more clues. And speaking of secrets, FEZ is full of them. One I stumbled upon by accident was the existence of anti-cubes. These dark purple cubes are much harder to find than the standard cubes, and they’re sufficiently creepy. Once I found one, I realized there was much more to the game than I suspected. Cause for every cube in the game, there’s also an anti-cube waiting to be discovered.
Jump, Skip and Hop
Complaints aside, I really did enjoy the platforming in FEZ. It’s diverse and keeps you on your toes. Sometimes you’ll be pushing levers to turn cranks that move around structures. Other times you’ll be making precise jumps onto moving platforms. One of my favorite sections was a dark and stormy area where lightning strikes would illuminate otherwise invisible platforms. And then there are pulse-pounding areas with you racing against a rising tide of lava. Though Gomez himself has all the grace of a punching bag with legs, that doesn’t make the adventure any less fun. Just don’t expect any Mario-level feats of acrobatics because that’s not his forte. On the plus side, Gomez doesn’t have a health bar to worry about. If you take damage, either from a hazard or from falling too far, Gomez will die and instantly respawn at his last location. So you never have any real consequences for failure, other than learning from your mistakes.
A Stunning Pixelated Vista
Visually, the game is pretty delightful. It’s glorious pixel art with style to spare, and lots of colors to enjoy. My favorite areas were the ones that changed up the visual filter, such as the grainy green and black sewers or the crimson red of the foundry. Though there’s not really any foes to worry about, there are tons of nice little touches, such as scampering animals. The music is generally pretty calm and stays out of your way, which is fine. If there was a high-tension musical track, it might have conflicted with exploring at your own pace. However, I did appreciate the musical nod to Zelda whenever Gomez opens a treasure chest. And though there’s not much in the way of characterization or plot, the mystery of the world itself keeps FEZ compelling.
Some Frustration Included
Now I need to mention some issues I had with the game, other than those previously discussed. One is that sometimes what the game wants from you in a section is unclear. One example was an area inside a tree trunk. Inside, Gomez can’t shift at all. You’re told a totem is preventing it, but not anything else. And while there are rods next to the totem where you can grab onto, that didn’t help. Usually when you grab a rod, the structure will instantly get pushed around. Instead, this puzzle needed you to grab hold and then shift, which I wouldn’t have guessed on my own.
Another puzzle had cubes and holes with markings, and I only stumbled onto the solution, securing my first anti-cube. Or worse, one puzzle had rumble features. I thought my game was glitching and turned the rumble off, only to figure out that the rumble itself was the key to a puzzle. And it still bothers me how complex some of the hieroglyph puzzles can be. I don’t know if there’s a way to solve them organically. If not, that’s a problem, since, in my opinion, you shouldn’t require a guide just to figure something out in any game. There should be enough breadcrumbs to put it together on your own. Lastly, though I normally could care less about achievements in games, I wish this version of FEZ had them. I looked, and the other versions have 12 or so achievements, and they all do a good job of highlighting what you still have to accomplish in the game.
I Tip My Hat to You
Ultimately, I have more positive things than negative to say about FEZ. Sure it can be cumbersome and confusing at times, but it’s still a beautiful and creative game. It’s nice I was finally able to play this one-time exclusive on a Nintendo console. And though I didn’t 100% beat the game, I at least got one of the endings before writing this up. Now armed with my cool shades, I might be able to find the other hidden 32 cubes and maybe learn the true secrets underpinning the world of FEZ. If you enjoy puzzles, platformers, and indies, I’d definitely give this one a shot. Just don’t be ashamed if you need to consult a couple of guides online.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (reviewed); Publisher: Polytron; Developer: Polytron; Players: 1; Released: April 14, 2021; MSRP: $14.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.