Review - Fez

Fez seems like a pretty neat little 2D-- OH SNAP!!

Fez is a REALLY neat little puzzle platformer based around a unique and mind-bending mechanic; the seemingly-2D game world is actually three-dimensional, and you can rotate the entire world 90 degrees at the push of a button. Even after playing the game for a good 16 hours I still find this incredibly trippy at times. That's right, Fez took a respectable 16 hours to complete; this is not just a proof of concept built around some gimmick - it's an extremely clever, highly polished and deeply rewarding game.

3D Game World 3D Game World 3D Game World

Graphically, Fez is simultaneously simple and phenomenal. Much like how Minecraft is able to produce breath-taking scenes from mere 8-bit cubes, Fez is packed with stunning, beautifully-crafted scenes that make clever use of colour and lighting to really bring the pixel graphics to life.

A Lovely Sunset Ancient Mine

The music and sound effects are equally excellent, changing to suit the current area but always staying true to the game's retro style.

A rather intriguing aspect of Fez is the sense of mystery the game creates. It's hard to describe it, but it's there, and I found myself completely entranced by it. As you jump around all these ancient structures, you can't help but wonder: where did these come from? Who built them, and where are they now? Who wrote all these strange symbols, and what do they mean? And what's the deal with these owls? The whole game has a somehow "magical" feel, as though you've stumbled upon a world that's been hidden for generations and you know you're not really supposed to be here, but you can't resist the urge to explore.

Mysterious Telescope

And explore, you shall! The game world is huge, and just when you think you've found a dead end you'll find a secret door that takes you to an entirely new area, making it almost impossible to explore in any systematic manner. This feeling of never quite knowing where you are gives the game a somewhat epic quality.

There is structure to the world, though, so if you just want to get on with the game then it's easy enough to find your way around and keep track of your progress. Specifically, the game is divided into a number of regions, each with a different theme, such as sunny beach or stormy graveyard. Each region is further divided into a number of self-contained levels, linked by doors. Each level may contain a number of collectables and secrets, and anything left to find will be marked on the world map, which is a clever node-based map that lets you visualise how everything fits together.

World Map

The world is large enough that simply visiting all the areas takes time, and even when you think that "SURELY I must have been everywhere?" you'll stumble across an entirely new chain of rooms. There's enough variety that it'll keep you interested, and plenty of challenge, too; somehow Fez manages to be challenging, despite the fact that the worst thing that can happen to you is that you respawn back on the last bit of solid ground you were on if you fall too far. Traversing the levels takes a lot of skill at times due to timed sections, moving platforms and, quite simply, having to figure out a route through a world that is at times like a 3D maze.

Village

So what's bad about Fez? Well, I had a few little niggles. There's no way to return to the main menu after choosing a save slot. It crashed a few times. There's no way of knowing where a hidden door will take you except by going through it, so you can't use them in route planning. The block pushing mechanics are a pain in the neck.

But these are all very minor problems, in the same of things. No, my real qualm with Fez is much more serious...

Fez is a puzzle game. Some of the puzzles are incredibly clever - brilliant, even. When I figured some of them out, my jaw literally dropped. But the entire satisfaction of a puzzle game comes from completing the puzzles. When puzzles become too hard or the solutions too obscure, the game ceases to be fun. You might spend twenty minutes or more on a particular puzzle, only to discover that you were miles away from the real solution - because the real solutions are virtually impossible to work out. Heck, there is at least one puzzle that people have only solved by guesswork, to the best of my knowledge. To come so close to completing the game and then to have victory snatched from your grasp because of a handful of unfair puzzles is incredibly demoralising.

SPOILERS!

Specifically, here were the puzzles I gave up on:

  • Security Question Room: You have to spell out the answer to a question by pushing a series of lettered blocks into the correct order. Did I mention the question and the blocks are in Fez's own cryptic alphabet, and I have no idea whence the answer is supposed to be found?
  • Black Monolith Room: You have to stand in a certain place after completing the game and unlocking first-person mode, and enter a code written on an in-game treasure map. This summons a floating Black Monolith - but this is only the start of the solution. You then have to press seven buttons in a certain sequence, the origin of which no-one but the creator seems to know.
  • Telescope Room: This one really takes the biscuit. You have to observe 2 flashing red dots in the sky. They flash out a binary code which, when converted to hexadecimal and then to ASCII, spells out a key code. I actually solved this by accident while trying to solve another puzzle in the same room. I was surprised and curious when I unlocked a strange red item, but dismayed and confused when I discovered that this item does not appear anywhere in your inventory.
  • Clock Room: You have to visit this room at certain times. One such time comes along only once every 2 days.
  • Throne Room: You have to retrieve 2 codes written on the walls of 2 separate rooms that you can only see in first-person mode, write them in columns side-by-side and then enter the resulting sequence left-to-right. OR you can just use a QR code reader elsewhere to unlock the same item, which silently prevents this from working, thus turning it into an eternal red herring.
  • Tuning Fork Rooms: You have to listen carefully to a series of sounds, work out whether each note is coming from the left or the right speaker, and thus produce a code to key in.
  • Bell Room: You have to hit each side of a bell a number of times, according to the markings on the bell, which, by the way, are in Fez's own mysterious numbering system.

These are just a handful of some of the harder puzzles in the game. Don't get me wrong, Fez's alphabet and numbering system are very clever once you understand them. I just wish there were a few more hints along the way. And don't even get me started on the owls.

While I'm on the subject of spoilers, I think the ending is deserving of a few words. Do you remember when games had satisfying endings? The classic examples that spring to mind are the old Spyro games for PS1, where you got to ride rollercoasters in Dragon Shores and earn streams of gems in Super Bonus Round. Fez has a similarly satisfying ending: in true Fez style, the creator takes you on a psychedelic journey to the heart of a pixel. This video can give you a taste, but even in HD it doesn't fully capture it.

END OF SPOILERS!

Final Verdict

All in all, Fez is a charming and quite brilliant game that I do not regret buying for a second. I don't know if I'll ever get round to replaying it - the dilemma with all puzzle games being that the puzzles are only challenging once - but I enjoyed it plenty first time round. You'll be hard-pressed to find a game so original and yet so classic, with its fantastic retro artwork and sound, intriguing game world and mind-blowing puzzles.