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

Fez, a new imdie platformer hitting Xbox Live Arcade from Polytron Corporation
Retro art direction
This is all, of course, very contemporary game design; it wouldn’t even have been possible until the PlayStation generation, give or take. Holding still, though, Fez looks like an 8-bit platform game, the better to turn our expectations around when the world starts spinning on an invisible axis. Everything is as abstract as it can be starting with Gomez himself: a white blob with human-like appendages going in roughly the right directions.

8-bit games had simple graphics by necessity, but then Fez has something similar going on. For the world-spinning gameplay to work right, the game world and all the objects in it had to be built out of 90-degree angles. So its creators seem to have gone ahead and made that the aesthetic: square houses, square bushes, square pipes, square trees, square language, square everything.

Even if the shapes tend to repeat themselves, the colors and themes don’t, and that’s what makes the graphics work. Different parts of the game world manage to create their own distinct personality even though everything had to be built out of the same simple squares. Most of the levels have a bright, colorful, inviting look, and the rest have an effective reason not to, such as a collection of underground sewer levels all done up in sickly greens.

Going along with the slow-paced gameplay, the soundtrack is peaceful and subdued. Composer Rich Vreeland’s entry in the credits actually reads “ambiance,” which isn’t a bad way of putting it even if it comes off sounding fairly pretentious. Imagine Vangelis recording a chiptune album, and your mental image might not be too far off the mark. Even when the endgame’s building to a momentous climax, there’s something oddly calm about it.

WHAT YOU WON’T LIKE

Lost in the ozone
Fez is a mostly non-linear experience. From a very early point in the story, players can range out along several different chains of levels. Backtracking is very annoying at first, and that annoyance never quite goes away. Soon enough, thankfully, warp gates and interlocking levels provide some quicker routes between any two given points.

Separate from the hassle of having to take the long way through familiar territory, finding those routes is still a pain sometimes. Inevitably, getting around the larger game world of Fez takes a lot of getting used to; our perspective on the levels and the doors that link them together is fundamentally weird. This leads to a lot of flipping back and forth to the map sub-screen while trying to work out which door on which side of one level links up with another.

Some areas provide cues that preview where a given door goes. A silhouette of the linked stage will appear in the distant background behind a door, and this is a neat way of reminding us how to get there. Connections aren’t always obvious like that, though, and in areas that have several doors going different directions, it’s frustrating when you have to go from door to door to find the right way out.

Likewise, the 3D world map screen gets very cluttered once you’ve unlocked most of the game’s areas. Getting a good look at a small part of it calls for a lot of tricky rotating, panning, and zooming in and out before a particular connection comes into focus.

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

Technical glitches
Some of the “bugs” in Fez are deliberate. As the story goes on, parts of key levels dissolve into “black holes,” obstacles that eat Gomez up if he tries to jump through them. There are also a few kicking-down-the-fourth-wall moments: If it looks like your console is rebooting or dropping into a debug mode, just relax and hold on for a few seconds (although Metal Gear Solid has probably immunized most of us against those kinds of stunts by now)….

Unfortunately, some other bugs got there the usual way. During longer play sessions, Fez seems to suffer from caching problems or memory leakage. When it transitions between stages, there’s usually supposed to be a smooth camera pan from one area to another that shows the new level gradually coming into focus. These transitions get more and more stuttery as the game goes on. Occasionally it has to give up on the fancy camera work altogether and drop out to a simple loading screen.

Once in a while, the refresh rate takes a hard skip during gameplay too, usually coinciding with an automatic save. It’s irritating when that little stop-start also happens at the same moment as a critical jump. This isn’t as inconvenient as it could have been (the consequences of death in Fez are hardly worth mentioning), but it’s something that should have been polished up before launch.

CONCLUSION

Hopefully, an update will take care of those issues soon, but otherwise, Fez delivers as advertised. This is a fun blend of classic and modern ideas: pixel graphics meet polygons and special effects, 2D gameplay meets a 3D world, twitchy reflex action meets a relaxed, easy pace.

There’s something to be said for that last part in particular. It’s a neat trick for a game to dish out a real challenge without inflicting a lot of stress in the process. This is not something we see very often, and it would be nice if developers could replicate this experience more frequently.

Score: 83/100

Fez will be released on April 13, 2012 for the Xbox 360. A download code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

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