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Retro graphics and relaxing puzzles help Fez rise above a troubled history (review)

Fez is one of those games where the backstory threatens to take up more space than the real story. So let’s get the backstory out of the way as quickly as possible: The guy who designed it has said some silly things, and the game took a long time to come out (five years, to be exact). The end.

What’s left is a charming, mentally challenging puzzler with a cute retro visual style. In other words, it’s more or less what we thought it would be back before it stopped being a game and turned into a sort of locus around which orbited thousands of angry forum posts.

Not every player out there may share the grasp of spatial visualization that Fez demands. The ones who don’t share it won’t take too long finding out because they’ll have a splitting headache within five minutes of leaving the title screen. Do you like having your perception all tied up in knots, though? Then Fez might be the game for you.

WHAT YOU’LL LIKE

Eye-twisting platform puzzles
Fez proposes that its hero, Gomez, is a two-dimensional being in a three-dimensional space. He perceives and moves around in only two dimensions of the game world, even though it’s designed and built in full 3D. Furthermore, since he doesn’t recognize the concept of depth, depth has no hold upon him. If two platforms line up from his 2D perspective, he can walk across one to the other, whether or not they’re separated along the axis that he doesn’t know is there.

Gamers will feel some flashbacks to Echochrome, the Sony design showcase that fooled with our preconceptions about the way 3D objects appear on a 2D display. Literary types may remember Edwin Abbot’s satire Flatland, a 19th-century novel about a sentient 2D square that accidentally stumbles on the mysterious world of “Spaceland.”

Gomez does something similar at the beginning of his adventure. Suddenly, he can start to experience this third dimension: Hitting the right and left trigger buttons turns the world 90 degrees along this strange new thing called a Z-axis. Spinning his perspective around lets Gomez line up parts of the landscape in all sorts of unusual ways and leads him along a quest to collect the MacGuffins that will keep the world from falling apart.

Fez, a new indie platformer hitting Xbox Live Arcade from Polytron Corporation

Though it’s billed as a platformer, Fez is much more like a puzzle game. The pace is slow and thoughtful. There are no enemies to fight and not much in the way of environmental hazards. Falling from too high up is about the only way to die, and all that happens afterward is that Gomez resets at the spot where he fell.

Some of the jumps call for quick, precise responses, but most of the time it’s not about jumping at the right moment; it’s about figuring out where to jump in the first place. A move can seem far too hard until you realize that you’re looking at it from the wrong perspective. Altogether, it makes for a surprisingly low-stress platform game and a nice change of pace from the white-knuckle style of something like Super Meat Boy.

Many areas are also built around pure adventure-game-style brain-teasers that require the player to read cues in the environment and scoot objects around. For instance, Fez’s world includes a fictional language and numerical system made up of little pixel-ey symbols; figuring out what they mean and how they correspond to controller inputs is the key to unlocking several secrets. (Trivia hounds may be amused to see that Gomez’s people apparently communicate using Tetris bricks.)

As far as challenge is concerned, Fez lands comfortably in the range of “not too hard to play well but tough to play perfectly.” Although the hardest puzzles are very difficult, they ramp up gently as the game goes on, and it’s not necessary to knock off every single one. You can clear the main portion of the game and see the credits roll by only finishing about half of the available areas. What this also means is that players who’d rather focus on platforming over code-breaking and block-pushing can do just that and still make it to the endgame. The same goes for folks with opposing tastes.

Finishing up that main stretch of the game doesn’t take all that much time: maybe six hours, give or take a bit depending on the player’s level of skill. That’s about as long as Fez needed to be. Too much longer and the gimmick would probably get a little too obvious. As it is, Fez takes a bow while we’re still enjoying the act.

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