Fez is a flawed work of genius, in a way. The base mechanics are lacking, glitches abound and yet the world -- so full of secrets and hidden puzzles -- is an utter joy to explore.
- Innumerable, complex secrets ensure the game will appeal to the loftiest of crowds
- Art style and chiptune soundtrack create one of the finest "retro" aesthetics out there
- Technical glitches and shortcomings give the game an unpolished, broken feel
- The 2-D/3-D mechanic doesn't remain interesting throughout
- Gomez is not particularly agile, and control can become an issue
Fez is a game that deserves more discussion than I can offer in a mere twelve hundred words; the score up there is deceiving. After six hours, I was disappointed. The game that had been advertised to me, a puzzle-platformer based primarily around a 2-D/3-D switching mechanic, was lukewarm, with the ending pretentious and full of nonsense. I was ready to write it off in a hailstorm of fancy reviewer words, like “bombastic”, and “thematically incoherent”.
But I wasn’t ready to fire up Google Docs quite yet, because there were these symbols littered about the landscape of Fez, and being a bit of an amateur cryptographer, I wasn’t happy leaving them unsolved. After all, the game indicated to me very clearly that many secrets still existed within its bounds. So I began to hunt around that cubic world, looking for clues to decipher its many clandestine markings.
Suddenly it was 5 AM, revelation after revelation striking, my desk littered with scrap sheets full of symbols and patterns. There’s an entire other game hidden within Fez, one that most players will ignore, that most critics pass over, that has very little to do with the 2-D/3-D framework. And within that game -- the one most people won’t see -- lies redemption.
Before I speak of that second game, however, let’s speak of the first, the one you expect to play. Fez is the latest in a long line of XBLA indie darling puzzle-platformers, one whose “hook” is the ability to rotate a 3-D world, and by nature of viewing angle, compress that 3-D world into a 2-D plane. Two platforms, so far apart in the previous axis, might now appear to be friendly neighbors. Our hero, Gomez, is tasked with using this ability to collect golden cube shards around the world, so that he might open mysterious doors. He’s guided by a rotating hypercube named…well, I don’t remember his name. He offers almost literally no useful advice at any point; he might well not even be there.
For all the praise that Fez seems to garner over the dimensional shifting, however, I was unimpressed. It’s visually fun, but rarely mentally taxing: simply rotate the camera until the thing you want to go to can be easily accessed. The player never needs to understand the actual geometry of the environment in question. You want to go to that platform? Just rotate until you can jump there. You want to climb up that tower? Just rotate until an unbroken path of vines appears. There are some clever exceptions to the rule. . .lowering and raising a screw via rotation comes to mind. . .but these exceptions are few and far between. You obtain the golden cubes by simply exploring the world, not by overcoming any particularly challenging mental labor.
A bit of a challenge comes from simple navigation of the world, which is thankfully connected by a proper warp system. The map, though certainly aesthetically pleasing, isn’t arranged in a logical fashion: the relative positions of each room are inaccurate. It does, however, do an excellent job of informing the player what tasks yet remain in each room, and whether or not they contain some sort of hidden treasure. And, I would stress that exploring the world still brings with it some fair measure of enjoyment: the graphical style is fun and breezy, the ambient chiptune soundtrack by Disasterpeace subtle and soothing.
Finally, though, and there’s no easy way to say this: Fez is a poorly programmed game. I suffered four hard crashes in my playthrough, and there was clear evidence of a memory leak, as performance degraded as time went on. Framerate issues marred the experience, loading times were frequent, and numerous other minor glitches popped up with some degree of regularity. It’s surprising that all this was allowed through Microsoft’s notoriously strict certification process, and we can hope for a quick patch, but players should be aware of what they’re getting into on launch day.
Alongside those 32 golden cubes exist 32 blue “anticubes”, which are obtained not by rote traversal of the world, but by solving cryptic puzzles and hidden messages throughout the world. You’ll obtain a few easy ones throughout the course of a normal run, but the difficulty spirals quickly up to nearly absurd. Many require at least a base-level knowledge of cryptography, linguistics, and geometry…impressive, for a game with no other mechanics but jumping and rotating the camera. The average player may not care, but these elements add greatly to the sum total of what Fez has to offer.
The player must scour the world for solutions, which are so cleverly arranged (how had you not seen it earlier!) as to inspire awe. One room reveals a clue on numerical markings, which helps you decipher a sequence of treasure maps; a brilliant “Rosetta Stone” reveals the alphabet, which allows for the translation of numerous riddles and instructions. Each puzzle layers atop the previous, the answers coming in moments of clarity, the blue cubes revealing themselves at last.
At time of writing I have, unfortunately, obtained only 62 of the 64 cubes. . .good enough for fourth out of hundreds on the leaderboards, but not good enough to see what lies behind that final door. It is a challenge that both frustrates and excites me, and though the internet will undoubtedly solve these riddles faster than I, I remain resolute; I will reach the conclusion with no external assistance. Very few gamers will bother, I fear, and to you, reader, I implore you to attempt to discover the secrets so cleverly hidden away on your own, lest the sense of discovery and triumph, so key to any good puzzle game, be lost.
Without these puzzles, Fez is a mediocre game. With them, it becomes a tapestry of intrigue and mystery, worth all those scrap sheets of paper, worth your hard-earned money. You can play either of the two games in Fez, or both, but how much you enjoy Fez will depend heavily on your patience, wit, and willingness to explore for that answer, ever so elusive.