noun, plural fez·zes.
1. A felt cap, usually of a red colour, having the shape of a truncated cone, and ornamented with a long black tassel, worn by men in Egypt and North Africa: formerly the national headdress of the Turks.
…But just where do the mind-bending, perspective shifting magical powers of the tasselled hat and a cute-as-a-button creature named Gomez wearing the thing come into it?
Well, put it this way: Have you ever wondered what the outcome of a passionate night of love between Minecraft and Super Meat Boy would look like? Well, consider your prayers answered, for Fez is just that… in terms of its lush, vibrant, 16-bit pixel art visuals anyway. In all other respects, however, the aforementioned couldn’t be any further from its love-parents.
From the very moment that the game begins, it encapsulates and fascinates, harking straight back to the days of retro long since past, only with a razor-sharp contemporary twist (pun most definitely intended): The colours, the gorgeous pixel art visuals, the salty-fresh sounds of the sea and birds tweeting bouncing effortlessly off of the 16-bit-inspired soundtrack floating around in the background; the day/night cycle, complete with a gorgeous palette of bright blues, lemony yellows and moody purples. It’s all just gorgeous and without a doubt one of the most visually pleasing games of its generation, sitting proudly alongside the likes of indie brothers Braid and Axel & Pixel, to name a few – and from these things alone, you will no doubt warm to it very quickly.
At first, you’re naked. You’re fez-less. All you can do is jump, climb and talk to the fascinating (and very Zelda-like) inhabitants of the village. And it is with these three basic actions that your first (and, possibly, only ever) task is assigned: Reach the top of the mountain.
And so, off sets little Gomez on the first chapter of his magical adventure, traversing the “mountain” (actually just the village, but still mountain-like vertically), and when you finally reach its peak – fifteen seconds if you hop to it, or around twenty-five minutes if you feel like observing the fascinating happenings of the game world – you’re treated to the ceremony to end all ceremonies, and, in a sequence that can only be described as a combination of a Commodore 64 loading screen and “that bit” in Batman: Arkham Asylum, with a hearty leap of celebration, our marshmallow-like friend dons the mystical fez and the real shenanigans begin…
The goal is simple: The all-affirming Hexahedron has broken apart and shattered into lots of little pieces. To restore order, these pieces – little golden blocks – must be collected to bring everything together again. This is what you have to do, and this is all you have to do… or if you so choose, for there’s a whole world of possibility within those manipulable 2D/3D perspectives that you can shift between at the touch of a button, and it’s completely up to you (no pressure) how you choose to take your adventure.
Of course, this may sound simple enough, but the magic ingredient is that the little golden blocks (or “bits”) are never just there – you actually have to search for them, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised and pleased with both yourself and the game’s design as a whole a good few times during your adventure. I must say with a stern boot to the ground, however, that collecting the little golden bits and restoring order to the land is only a mere fraction of what the game is about, as you’ll soon discover that there’s a friggin’ myriad of extra little hunts to take part in – many of which revolve around solving a slightly more complex and mind-bending puzzle (compared to the bit-hunting ones) and being rewarded with a collectible nicknack for your efforts.
They’re HUGELY satisfying indeed and, it must be said, offer more than the bit-collectibles do in terms of puzzlery, bolstering a good few extra hours onto the relatively short main story mode. And then there’s New Game+ which allows you to explore the game at your whim, giving you a chance to mop up any puzzles and/or collectibles that you might have missed during your first run.
Cut from the same cloth as Braid both spiritually and financially, Fez is a game that NEVER evokes any anger or frustration, and that’s because it simply doesn’t intend to. It’s easy-going, never feels overwhelming, and, despite being of a semi-open world structure, all feels very much contained and secure within those four perspectives – always played from a 2D view – and the perspective shifting itself, operated by LT/RT or LB/RB, is slick, smooth and tuned to utter perfection. It never confuses; it doesn’t add or take away anything that could potentially make the game harder and/or seemingly impossible, and, most importantly, it never screws you over, nor does it ever become a case of laboriously grinding through and going for absolute stat-based completion in each world. It just doesn’t want you to look at it in that way.
You can die, but you’re never – I repeat, NEVER! – punished for doing so. There are no enemies to kill you; no imposing time limits with the promise of death hovering over you, and, should you ever fall from a high platform only to land with a splat below, the game merely respawns you atop the last safe platform, stress-free and full of awesome.
It’s undeniably a game that doesn’t ask for much, but what it does to achieve it is beyond tremendous, though it really is a game to be taken lightly. If you go in all guns blazing, it’ll get you nowhere fast (if anywhere at all), and pressing LB/RB an infinite number of times would honestly get you further, in fact. Here’s a handy rhyme: It’s not a race, so slow the fecking pace!
It plays like a classic 2D platformer, except you can manipulate the heck out of each and every trend and convention set all those years ago – and strangely, for a game of this nature, there’s no solid level-to-level structure as per the platform game convention, but, instead, a somewhat semi-open world concept where you can drop in and out of the world’s various areas as you please. Of course, in order to do this, you have to make use of various doors and warp gates to get around seeing as there’s no fast travel option, and, while they’re never completely obvious or self-explanatory, they do add to the game’s deceptive vastness, but, in time, actually become a sigh-inducing aggravation.
And then there’s the World Map which is a tad nonsensical (to say the least) and leaves much to be desired beyond its very fumble-heavy nature, but that’s partly because it’s an idea – a very abstract one – that we, not being the developers themselves, simply don’t ‘get’. Suffice to say that it’s simply too much for us mere mortals, but it is, however, a perfect visual representation of the game’s ever-branching-into-infinity openness, complete with easy-to-grasp map legend and icons next to each area to indicate what collectibles and/or secrets remain, but… well… the rest of it just doesn’t make any sense, really.
Fez doesn’t have a story as much as it has a backstory, subtly explained in scarcely scattered fragments of alien text and prehistoric wall etchings dotted in and around the world, as well as the odd anecdote from the strictly nocturnal owls and such; and the fact that such a relaxed, open-minded approach has been taken with the storytelling – and in a way that doesn’t leave the player begging for answers – is just beautiful and, dare I say, a work of genius.
Don’t worry about the game taking itself too seriously either, because it doesn’t, nor ever does – which is friggin’ excellent – but it always values and respects the player and treats them as the intelligent individual that they are. On top of this, it even has a sense of humour, courtesy of a handful of glistening Zelda homages and Gomez’s trusty sidekick Dot and its Wheatley-esque innocence – only the former doesn’t wish to grind you into paste after being uploaded into a new body.
And, as if the gameplay needed spicing up even more, there are the added elements of Super Mario Bros. 2-esque demolition bombs; crumbling, invisible and spinning platforms; little Gomez-killing black holes torn in time and space, and even the most typical platformer conventions with a whole new layer and edge of freshness applied to them, all intertwining with and even adding to the puzzles, giving Fez yet another thumbs-up in all things gameplay and variety. It just doesn’t end!
(And for that, we are all truly grateful.)
But with all of this exploration and the possibilities within, can it even be called a puzzle game? Why, yes, it most certainly can, but the deep, deep, deep puzzles are more of an on-the-side affair than what the lion’s share of the game contains – the lion’s share being the deeply explorative side, both mentally and objective-related, and I can honestly say, hand on now-warmed heart, that I have never played a game like this before in my life, and I can guarantee that you wouldn’t have either.
Fez is a revolution of aesthetics, mechanics and fascination all in its very own league where no other game would even dare orbit, in fact, where the tuned-to-perfection polish in each and every level can practically be felt against your skin, and it’s because of this tuned-to-perfection nature that you can’t help but feel as if you’re in the safest of safe hands when you’re playing this game.
And, believe me, you are…
Is Fez about the adventure? No, it’s about the journey. You will do and see things in this game that you never before thought imaginable, yet Fez does it all with a hop and a skip and not a single tassel out of place. And do you know what else? It’s a game that’ll make you feel happy – an emotion that rarely enters the orbit of gaming – be it because of all your hard work in solving one of the game’s complex puzzles paying off; Dot providing a quirky anecdote, or maybe even something as simple as there not even being a reason why. Sometime it just is, if you get what I mean.
Oh, and get this: Some of the rooms don’t even contain anything puzzle-related at all, for frog’s sake! Instead, they’re there merely because they are, be they for exploration of the marvellous perspective shift mechanic or otherwise, and it’s a damn radical move of Polytron indeed. A move that pays off in its own weight in gold cubes, however, as it works like an absolute charm because what they’re doing is giving us as much game as humanly possible without completely packing out and overwhelming the experience with all manner of unnecessary stuffing and crap; instead presenting the player with an objective and mission, but one that doesn’t force itself upon you in an attempt to dominate your experience in any way, shape or form.
Fez is a friggin’ revolution, and it stands tall not only as one of the greatest games that 2012 has produced so far, but as one of the greatest games ever.
Nizulo rates this 9/10
Fez is currently available to download on the Xbox 360 for 800MSP (£6.80, or $10.00 USD).