It could easily be assumed that Fez has had a free ride. Despite being lost in development for five years, turning up at conference after conference, there was a feeling that everyone wanted it to succeed. With a quirky, small dev team flying the Indie-darling flag on a major console and a retro 8-bit style it was tugging at the romantic side of every gamer. But Fez is more than that. Beyond the takes of extended development lies a platformer that is equally charming and clever.
Yet on the surface sits what is apparently is a basic platform adventure. Though with one quite literal twist.
Our hero Gomez lives in a 2D world; his picturesque villages sitting on a single plane. Made up of traditional blocks, house tiles and vines, he’s nimbly able to traverse and climb its full breadth and height though forever locked in the X and Y. Out of the blue, as if the videogame adaptation of Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland, a shape with a third-dimension arrives and shows unto the village the meaning of depth. It’s a revelation. Suddenly the classrooms are filled with new promise and the townsfolk are excited about what else this arrival could mean.
For Gomez it means a lot. Granted a magical hat – you can probably guess what sort – he has been gifted the power to turn the world on its axis. Though still only able to move in his native two-dimensions, the hat allows the world to shift 90 degrees bringing the depth to be his width. What previously were dead ends can now be turned to reveal further pathways and extra routes.
Initially this seems like a novel way of hiding secrets about a relatively normal platformer; spin the door to reveal a door/chest/cube. Exit the village however and you’ll see it’s more than that as you craft stairways from pillars previously separated by the width of the screen, or uncover a series of vines that thanks to the flattening of perspective join to allow you to climb to new heights. The opening hour is full of a series of eureka moments as the possibilities cement themselves in your mind.
At that point Fez is for exploring. The world map opens up a warren of routes, taking you up, over and round Gomez’s village and taking him far from home. The main reason for this jaunt is that you promised the visiting cube that, in traditional genre fare, you would collect smaller, golden cubes, which in turn open up further areas and further small, golden cubes.
After a while the world-turning becomes second nature. No matter where you find yourself you know a dab on the triggers left or right will bring, spinning into place, your escape route. A certain amount of variety is injected with switches that alter water levels or set in motion a series of time-crucial routes but at this point it becomes about the journey. Not even with their addition is Fez overly tricky, but rather a means to take in and appreciate the 8-bit landscape and the themes Polytron have daubed their world with. Collecting the cubes may have been the initial motivation, but that dwindles for the wanton need to see what is behind every door. Navigating across lighthouses sitting proud on a blue sea or haunted houses lit by angular lighting, you’ll find everything from pixelated bunnies lolloping about through to Tetris-shaped clouds floating by, all the while supported by a stunning chiptune soundtrack completing the experience.
If it were that alone, Fez would still have proven to be an incredibly lovely game. Full of quaint nods to the platformers and styles of yesteryear whilst packing in a novel mechanic it would have received clucks of approval throughout for the warm glow that such nostalgia-with-a-twist brings.
However, as you unearth the second layer, the realisation dawns that the platforming is not even close to being the main reason for Fez’s existence. Underneath is a fiendish puzzler, the likes of which has not been seen since the days of the games it so stylishly tips its Moroccan hat to. The cute graphics, the nifty rotation mechanic and the world as a whole are merely a delivery mechanism to house further homage to a bygone age, and mysteries that are amongst the toughest I’ve ever come across.
Easier challenges involve shifting blocks and replicating patterns; more advanced examples may hinge upon your observation skills; and by the time you have reached the puzzle summit you will have partaken in levels of cryptography that could seal you a place at MI5. At times I sat surrounded by piles of paper, each covered with scribbles and patterns as I tried to make sense of it all, but come the moment of success it felt a mix of blessed relief and delight, especially given what was found behind the previously locked doors.
To reveal any of their substance would be to ruin them for you, but the level of dedication and service put in by the team to pull off not just the individual puzzles but weave them and their rewads into the world at large is testament to their talents. Strange glyphs and tablets will have littered your path on route to the initial conclusion, but only upon a second play-through does it become apparent just how deep Fez goes.
Though possibly too deep. Many of the puzzles are utterly unsolvable until you complete your first pass. Whereas Metroid has its weapon-coded doors, Fez has its cyphers. They’ll sit there and taunt you and occasionally pull you in, forcing you to try and crack it believing you hold enough facts when truth be told what you have is nothing. Though it pays respect to the single-screen platformers of the Spectrum, not everything on its bite-sized levels must be completed on the first visit and a good adventurer needs to know when to avoid frustration and come back later.
That in itself is an art, and has sadly been the cause of a large amount of grief on my behalf, made worse by the cross-world navigation. Scattered throughout the land are hints to secrets and puzzles on the other side of the world, and yet getting from A to B is painful. The map itself has to be seen to be believed; a vast spider’s web of doors and warps that ties together the dozens and dozens of rooms Gomez explores. From the confusion of orientating yourself against it to small, arbitrary black holes that open up on your return to certain rooms, retracing your steps is not half as gleeful as your initial forays. It’s a shame to say this back-tracking is necessary and at the detriment to the game as a whole.
Fez is a game of two parts, the first being a bright, joyful skip down memory lane that will attempt to please as many of your senses as possible. It is there to serve you with whimsy by the screenful and does everything it can to please you, from offering small, manageable levels for those with little time to punishing a missed jump by doing no more than resetting you to where you launched from. Almost cruelly you find yourself brought into the second half where what you were doing previously is a by-product. Here the grey cells get tested and tested hard, but the more you put in the more you will definitely get out.
Though whilst some may accept the unabashed difficulty as a challenge, I found the unguarded nature by which it interfered with my time spent in the first half distracting. With little gating, frustration is easy to come by. That, in of itself, is not the disappointment; that it may cause players to walk away before they have seen all the wonders that Fez offers, is.