Take two small objects and hold them out in either hand directly in front of your left and right eyes. Now move them both to the center point between your two eyes, like both objects are rotating a quarter turn around an invisible center axis. In your perception, those two objects now look like one; they’ve merged on the horizontal plane in front of your eyes. This simple optical illusion is the foundation of Fez, the brilliant new puzzle/platformer from Polytron. While others have teased the potential of this trick – most notably Echochrome and Paper Mario – no other game captures the potential and magic of the concept like Fez. The result is one of the most accessible, clever, and mind-altering experiences on the gaming market.
You are Gomez, and your small 2D world has just been flipped on its head by the arrival of a magical fez. Your new hat lets you shift your perspective and perceive the 3D world that’s always been outside your perception. Echoing storytelling and themes presented decades ago in the novella Flatland by Edwin A. Abbot, you set out and discover that the world is far bigger and more complex than you first imagined.
The guiding principle behind the joy of Fez is the sensation of discovery. Every new level is a process of pulling back the curtain a little further. Secrets and mysteries abound: Hidden warp doors send you careening across the map to different locations, bright red treasure chests hide keys and artifacts, and looming obelisks tease concepts you might not grasp until hours later. The rabbit hole goes incredibly deep; some of the most involved puzzles are so complicated that you can easily pass them by without even realizing a puzzle was present.
As you reveal these mysteries, you collect glowing cubes – the keys to saving the universe, naturally. Reaching these tantalizing cubes is the real trick, requiring you to rotate the entire world around to get a new view of the action. Changing perspective makes impossibly distant gaps between platforms appear to be only a few feet away, or a ladder on the opposite side of a wall show up where it seemed invisible from your initial viewpoint. Where another game would have you staring at the same screen for five minutes trying to figure out what to do next, many puzzles in Fez are built around motion and dynamic interaction. I love what this mechanic does for puzzle design. The solution is usually right in front of you, if you change your view on the situation. Puzzles are challenging, but for most of the game you’re solving them at a steady and rewarding pace.
Several magnificent and original brainteasers wait in the later hours, but the pace of progression dramatically slows. Confusing navigation and the likelihood of frequent backtracking are the game’s only real flaws; far flung clues and the inability to move quickly between unsolved levels takes its toll, and the conclusion sits frustratingly out of reach for several hours. Fez alleviates some of this slowdown by offering two different types of cubes that can be used to reach the end. One set is generally easier to reach, but they both combine to create the total you need to witness the endgame. Completionists may return afterwards to put together the wildly challenging full picture. Those dedicated players are in for a treat, since Fez offers a New Game+ feature with an intriguing twist that will change the way you see Gomez’s world.
Fez’s 8-bit art style is simple but charming, and plays well into the fiction of this strange universe of flat shapes and hard corners. Occasional frame rate stalls during autosaves and location loads aren’t enough to hurt the otherwise smooth visual presentation. The sparse musical soundtrack heightens the atmosphere at key moments, and drives home the ‘80s nostalgia vibe.
The most striking moments and puzzles of Fez are the ones I’m most reticent to spoil. The initial core mechanic of changing your perspective on the level is actually a preface for deeper layers of gameplay. Whether it’s the subtle shifts in lighting during the day and night cycle of a level, translating seemingly meaningless symbols into meaningful clues, or even paying attention to the specific vibrations of your controller, Fez challenges players to think and see in new ways. It’s a puzzle game with genuine moments of revelation and subtlety, and deserves all the acclaim it will undoubtedly receive.