Ever since I had a chance to play a little bit of Fez at last year's IndieCade festival, I'd been anxiously awaiting its release. At the time, it wowed me with its aesthetics--both nostalgic and beautiful--and its seemingly pure focus on exploration above all else. In short, I've had pretty high hopes for the game. Now that the Xbox Live Arcade exclusive is out in the wild and I've been able to spend quite a bit more time with it, I'm happy to report that the game is continuing to surprise and delight in a number of unexpected ways.
The intriguing and odd-looking tasseled hat for which indie developer Polytron's game is named has been highlighted in a number of other mediums before. Before The Simpsons, Matt Groening adorned his comic-book characters Akbar & Jeff with the esoteric lids. Steely Dan and Dr. Who have also featured Fez's in one way or another. In the case of Fez the game, the tiny red hat bestows special 3D powers upon a cute little 2D creature named Gomez, who must collect a variety of cubes in order to save his world.
The joy of playing Fez, for me, comes from a few key things that the game does exceptionally well. From a presentational standpoint, it's what I'd call retro-stunning. In Fez, where exploration and collection are the core objectives, deft and compelling presentation matters all the more. A blocky, old-school aesthetic, a rich and varied color palette, fantastically-complimentary sound effects and music, and little touches like day-night cycles and the audio-visual rewards for progress help carry the experience.
Rotating the world is also a treat for the eyes, but is also key to Fez's primary gameplay focus: figuring out how to navigate and explore each environment in order to collect the glowing yellow cubes that are necessary to progress. Were Fez a truly three-dimensional platformer, this wouldn't be that interesting. However, the game instead renders each "dimension" as a 2D plane. There's the illusion of volume, but each playing field is 2D. This amounts to a number of navigational puzzles that are built on optical illusions. Since there's no real penalty for death in the game, one can also be recklessly experimental while trying to figure things out.
Structurally, Fez is set up as a series of interconnected "stages," that effectively create a giant web of locations to explore. There's a bit of a Metroid vibe, in that you'll need to return to certain locations after progressing a bit. It fits the exploration motif perfectly. I'm not keen to ruin them, but the game continues to introduce new gameplay concepts and throw puzzling little mechanical twists as things progress. I was initially a bit worried about Fez's lack of any combat akin to most platformers, but after a few hours, I haven't missed it for a second.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't think infusing Mario-like enemies into this type of gameplay experience would be interesting, but doing so would give the feeling of a much different game. Fez is designed in such a way that you can play for as little or as long as you like in a sitting, and is ultimately relaxing and contemplative. It's possible to get frustrated by some of the environmental puzzles, but they're anything but stressful.
Though I haven't yet finished it, I can already tell that Fez is a really special game, and one that Xbox 360 owners that love platforming and adventure games should really consider checking out. Impatient gamers may not find the game's zen-like, play-at-your-own-pace attitude to their liking, but it's turning out to be one of my favorite games this year, so far.
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