Accidentally something of a bedfellow for last month’s Journey by dint of receiving similar breathless reviews from people who presumably hitherto believed that Final Fantasy games were humanity’s greatest cultural achievement, Xbox exclusive Fez is in fact a far more traditional offering. Unlike Journey’s wordless heartstring-tugging, Polytron’s long in the making platformer is not trying to reinvent anything.
Instead, it’s a meticulously-crafted puzzle/jumping game that wears its love for early 90s Nintendo platformers proudly on its pixel-art sleeve. While the central gimmick – pressing the shoulder or trigger button rotates the apparently 2D world by 90 degrees, thus presenting an often wildly different aspect on and layout of the level – would seem to be the star of the show, it’s the general presentation that’s the real winner. Cramped, basic-looking side-on artwork quickly explodes into cubist surreality depicted across a sprawling, interconnected world of levels filled with puzzles, secrets and auteurish musical accompaniment.
While it loosely apes the level structure of something like Mario 64, in that to some extent you can approach levels in your preferred order and revisit as many times as is required to find everything, Fez isn’t even as fixed as that. The world blossoms open into a spiral of linked, themed screens that you’ll for the most part wander to and from organically, only approaching the challenges methodically when the time comes to solve and find stuff you know you’ve missed.
With such amorphous objectives and a partial focus on exploration rather than the genre-traditional gauntlet running, Fez can at times feel oddly purposeless. While there is the constant impulse to collect, with the Cubes you’re primarily in pursuit of sounding an impossible-to-ignore tone whenever one’s near, some of the time it can feel like bumbling around without being entirely sure where you are, where you’ve just come from or where to go next.
Fortunately, the deep desire to solve the largely rotation-based puzzles saves Fez from aimlessness. The many scattered cube pieces are forever placed in such a way as to look easily obtainable, and it’s only upon the trek to them that the gentle complexity of actually reaching them becomes clear. Only occasional is the challenge truly difficult, but for the most part it’s a matter of analysing the landscape and observing how it changes when you spin it by 90 degrees. It’s tricky physics to get your head around for sure, as it’s not conventional 3D objects but instead another perspective on 2D ones.
So, with a flip, a platform that was initially far-distant from the next one might suddenly be right next to it, or a thin, tiny line of green becomes a moss-covered wall to climb up. On top of that, you’ll be puzzling over additional elements like short-fused bombs that can destroy frailer walls, gravestones that can be rotated independently of the rest of the world, portals to here there and everywhere, and invisible platforms that can only be spotted when lightning flashes.
Then there are the invisible characters, the anti-cubes, the codes hidden inside the soundtrack… It’s so rich with handmade detail, is Fez. Thoroughly conventional on the one hand yet thoroughly unpredictable on the other, it is more of an unfolding experience than a fixed romp through retro jump-puzzle worlds. Even the all-knowing internet has, so far, failed to entirely crack this nut, with obscure, cryptic secrets still revealing themselves.
Mercifully, Fez falls just short of archness. Yes, it’s a big old show-off like its most direct analogue, Braid, but it doesn’t try to browbeat anyone with its intelligence and introspection. It’s a playful platformer first and foremost, artfully augmented by hand-made sound and vision and packed with careful mysteries. And unlike Journey, it’s a game that can keep on giving and offering more for a decent chunk of time.