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Birthday Honours

At this time of year, as the Christmas trees come down and attentions turn to hot cross buns, award ceremonies are ten-a-penny with every magazine, show and website handing out accolades left right and centre. And by golly by jingo we want to get in on the action.

So whilst more reputable publications hand out Game of the Year plaudits, we present you with a list of those titles that have proven themselves enough to make the resurrected BIGsheep Birthday Honours.

Biggest Surprise: ZombiU

At Gamescom ZombiU and I did not get on well. In a noisy hall, shoulder to shoulder with fellow gamers, I attempted to get to grips with a seemingly clunky, cricket bat swinging survivor of the zombie apocalypse. He wasn’t a survivor for long. Neither was the next chap. Or the subsequent poor lady.

In the comfort of my own home, however, Ubisoft’s Wii U launch title came into its own. It wasn’t a game to excel on a show floor, but a considered title that required patience. In return it repaid you with a unique experience that could crank up the tension by merely placing a pair of blips on your radar.

In an era where most games seem to be going for a more instantly accessible and, some may say, dumbed down mainstream experience, ZombiU embraces being slightly obtuse. Now whether this is a design masterstroke or a pure accident it’s hard to tell but it’s come from nowhere to be the most surprising title of 2012.

Honourable mentions: Wii U, PlayStation Plus’s instant game collection.

zombiu

Most Likely to Make My Mind Melt: Fez

For a handful of us, our April was consumed by talk of glyphs. We had notebooks and smartphones full of pictures and scribbles as Phil Fish’s mind boggling platformer took over our mental faculties. It started simply enough, presenting itself coyly as an 8bit indie darling. Slowly, however, the truth was revealed and not only was it an inspiring mix of retro visuals and stirring platforming but a vessel that contained an entire new language that had to decrypted.

There was no bluntness to it, though. The language was part of the world, etched into the walls, with a subtlety that meant when its importance was revealed it made you look at the world from a completely different perspective.

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Greatest Multiplayer Experience: FIFA 13

As a concept it may not be revolutionary, but EA’s latest incarnation of the beautiful game is as polished as can be. Part of that comes from the various game modes: grouping each club’s supporters together and charting shared success; a collectible card game where you put your best Panini stickers against a friend’s; or online leagues that shows the best implementation of “True Skill” since Halo 2.

In the last twelve months though there has been no multiplayer experience that has topped getting half-a-dozen friends together and marching out onto the virtual pitch. Each of us takes a position – I like to think of myself as the digital Scott Parker – and attempt to work together in sync, watching for each other’s runs, sliding through through-balls, and hopefully working goals that even Messi would be proud of. Though sadly the opposition seem equally adept. The swines.

Honourable mentions: Nintendoland, Journey.

FIFA13

Reaffirming My Belief That Games Can Just Be Pure Fun: Nintendoland

If there was a period that sold me on the Wii U it was the Monday lunchtime right after it had launched. A colleague had brought the machine, Nintendoland and a bagful of Wii-motes into the office and an hour later I was plotting a visit to GAME.

Some may say that Nintendoland doesn’t sell the Wii U as well as Wii Sports sold the original Wii, but that’s beside the point as the Luigi’s Mansion mini-game is almost worth the price of admission alone. A simple collection of games based around almost playground concepts, the collection excels at stripping away overly complex controls schemes and allows players to revel in the glee of tig for the modern era.

There are duds, but most either excel in multiplayer or reveal a surprising amount of depth or challenge when tackled solo. They’re simple, but when simple is done so well why overcomplicate matters.

Honourable mention: Super Mario 3D Land

nintendoland

Most Interesting New Tech: Book of Spells

I’m always a sucker for technology that verges on the novelty. Last year’s obsession with Skylanders and its Near Field Communication toys proves that out. This year it was Sony’s Wonderbook that won me over; effectively a giant set of Augmented Reality cards bound in a cover and combined with an Eye-Toy.

As always, though, it’s how it’s used that makes it wonderful. Wonderbook’s ability to turn your room into a classroom at Hogwarts is achieved by more than simply rendering dragons on your coffee table. You get sucked into the magical castle, shown tiny paper-based dramatizations of spell’s histories, and transported to fantastical locations. At each you flick and swish your wand complete with all the sparkles you need to levitate toads and set Deatheaters on fire.

It may also help that there’s a Walking with Dinosaurs tie in coming later this year.

Honourable mentions: Vita, PlayStation Plus, Game Boy Camera.

bookofspells

Most Likely to Make Me Miss My Bedtime: Minecraft

Sometimes a glassed walled lair hidden beneath a manmade volcano just has to be made. Then of course when that’s completed it needs attaching to the mine cart network so you can speedily reach the giant floating castle. Well, that would be if my giant floating castle hadn’t burnt down when I installed the fire pit. Next time: don’t use timber.

With each new construction the late nights were worth it. Not since Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts have I had a virtual Lego set that kept me up to the wee small hours as walls needed finishing, ponds needed digging, and giant squid needed herding.

Honourable mention: Wordament

minecraft

Oddest: Tokyo Jungle

Possibly the hardest fought category but by a smidge Tokyo Jungle made my mind boggle most. The sheer bizarre concept of playing as a Pomeranian, savaging cattle and courting flee infested mates doesn’t sound like a winner, but it worked.

It felt like a modern incarnation of Double Dragon but when you take into account the story behind the animal adventure the mind truly boggles. Time travels, future humans trying to save themselves by sacrificing the past, and golden retrievers declaring themselves king… I’ll never slag off the Halo storyline again.

Honourable mentions: Frog Fractions, Fez.

tokyojungle

Bestest Game: Journey

Hands down this was by far and away the best game, nay experience, I’ve had all year. It combined charming, mute characters with wondrous landscapes in a platform-come-pilgrimage that saw you gracefully slide down sand dunes, scale snowy peaks and soar through the blue skies above. It constantly changed, but never felt forced or jarring in its transitions just that it always wanted to take you on a new adventure.

More than that, however, it touched me emotionally. The beautiful story conveyed in such minimalistic ways joined with an online cooperative experience that seemed so unique but equally compelling to everyone I spoke to was moving. It may only be a few hours long but that time can be held up as the finest time that can be found in our hobby.

Honourable mentions: Witcher 2, Fez

journey

Fez

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.