It’s funny, really. All these games that we’ve been hearing about forever, and never seem to have a release date, and are finally arriving. Duke Nukem Forever took, what, fourteen years? And for that matter, there’s also Fez, Polytron’s long-in-the-making independent platformer, which was so far from a release date that it was prominently featured in Indie Game: The Movie. But lo and behold, this past Friday (the 13th, no less), it finally came to Xbox Live Arcade, and upon playing it, you can kind of get an idea why Phil Fish and his team took so long in getting it put together. It’s complex, and delightfully so.
The game stars Gomez, a typical 8-bit hero who is living peacefully in his village when he’s assigned to go investigate something. Upon doing so, however, the digital universe he lives in threatens to break apart unless he starts collecting things, namely cubes, to put it back together again. However, when he returns to his world, not everything is as it seems. Sure, it looks 2D on the surface (like a level out of a classic NES game), but there’s a dynamic change in perspective.
Part of Fez’s appeal is being able to shift the environment to your benefit, kind of like Crush did on the PSP, but different in its own way. By hitting the left and right shoulder buttons or triggers on your Xbox 360 controller, the world turns a quarter degree, giving you a view of something you didn’t see in the previous perspective. This is a tricky thing to learn at first, and in some levels it can be quite taxing, but soon you’ll develop a pattern in using it to your benefit. For instance, a platform that looks out of reach in one perspective becomes much closer to get to in another.
You’ll need to get used to changing perspectives (and jumping, of course) pretty quickly, mainly because the degree of difficulty definitely picks up in the game as you go along. There are no enemies to worry about (not that the game really needs them), but finding all the cubes, not to mention keys to open doors and some strange coding that somehow ties into the whole mystery, will take a great deal of time. You’ll also need to solve occasional puzzles, some of which can really mess with your mind, if you let them.
But by no means is this a discouragement from playing the game. In fact, Fez is so mind-bendingly original and pays such tribute to classic games of yore (watch out for the Zelda reference when you open a treasure chest), it shouldn’t be missed. The gameplay actually rewards you for being exploratory, and sometimes you’ll grin at the thought that you finally resolved something that you didn’t think could be solved in the first place.
What’s more, the graphic shift between 2D and 3D is amazing. At first, the game looks like another 8-bit platformer, but as you shift perspectives, you see just how awesome the graphic engine is, as you twist your world around. Gomez is a delightful character in his own right, decked out with only a fez (hence the name) but still making a worthwhile hero. And when he smiles with a huge gaping jaw upon solving a puzzle, it’s a delightful sight. The only negative is that there are occasional glitches in the game – some are intended, but others, we’re not so sure. They’re easy to overlook, at least.
Disasterpeace’s soundtrack resembles something out of a classic NES game, with plenty of superb overtones and hummable stuff that deserves a spot in the iTunes store somewhere, right along with the Journey soundtrack. The other effects are kind of minimal, but not really necessary. Gomez is better off being a silent hero, rather than one who wisecracks all the time. Gex he ain’t.
Really, despite its hefty difficulty scale (at times) and its prolonged journey, Fez has proven itself to be worth the wait. The graphics are phenomenal, combining the best of old school with new technology; the music is terrific; and the gameplay will really have you working to solve everything and collect everything, which will take some time – just as a great game should. This is easily one of the year’s best, and hopefully we won’t be waiting another five years for the return of Gomez.