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

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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.

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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