When it comes to innovation, ingenuity and creativity gamers look no further than the indie games market. Triple A, big budget titles get all the headlines but when push comes to shove they are made to sell, not made to challenge gaming conventions. So when it comes to an indie game which steals the spotlight I am excited and sceptical in equal measures. As the proverbial saying goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it, can you?
Of course there are games that have managed such a feat before. In particular indie classic Braid which was widely teased pre-release and turned out to be an absolute belter. Alongside the likes of Braid you can now place Fez, a platform puzzler from the mind of Phil Fish and without a doubt the most innovative and interesting game that will be released this year.
It’s hard to find a place to start with Fez because although it inherits shades of Mario (Paper Mario in particular) Echochrome and Zelda, it’s not quite like anything you or I have played before. So perhaps let’s start right at the very first thing that hits you when you play Fez, its visuals.
Pixelated, retro meets high res and rich with colour, Fez is utterly mesmerizing. The game’s highly stylized, retro-esque graphics bring a strong sense of nostalgia and, whilst not breaking any new moulds on their own, Fez’s combination of dated sprites with high resolution dreamscapes and imagery makes for a refreshing and original experience. Everything is vivid, eye popping and exceptionally good looking yet at the same time helps create an enigmatic quality to proceedings.
However, before we get onto ‘the meat on the bone’ that is Fez’s gameplay, whilst we’re talking about presentation it’s worth noting that the use of sound in Fez is equally as brilliant. There’s no denying the game’s soundtrack will win over many, MANY hearts. It’s serene to the point, almost meditative, chilled out, extremely memorable and outstanding, resulting in a highly relaxing escapade not unlike the experiences you get when playing the likes of ThatGameCompany’s Flower or Journey. Mirroring Fez’s visuals, the game’s soundtrack combines the old, in the form of soothing chiptune with more surreal elements like field recordings to provide interesting contrasts with smatterings of retro, bit style sounds used for the game’s sound effects to add to the increasing level of surrealism. Combined the way Fez looks and the way it sounds is a real piece of art and perhaps should be bought just to be experienced.
That’s not to say the main crux of Fez (after all, this is a game we are talking about) should be negated for its presentation. Because for all the spectacular, interesting and creative things it does when it comes to its approach to graphics and sound, its gameplay totally outshines.
The real magic of Fez is in its sense of adventure and discovery. Down to its bare bones it instills the essence of a fun, 2D retro platform of yesteryear, but its core game mechanic of switching between perspectives really does add new dimensions. It’s quite a hard concept to get around let alone explain but the games shift between perspectives allows players to cover all corners, rotating the world around you to look in front, to the sides and behind in search of maps, artifacts and magical yellow cubes, which have been scattering across the world due to the literally earth shattering event that gave you such a cool hat and perspective shifting powers. There is no hand holding apart from some very basic ‘press A to jump’ style tutorials giving players the freedom to experiment and play around with Fez’s aspect altering mechanic, resulting in feelings of achievement when you do find what you’re looking for through your own experimentation.
The whole thing is a double edged sword though. On the one hand, the lack of any detailed tutorial leads to a bigger sense of reward when you finally figure things out, on the other it leads to A LOT of frustration.
As Fez progresses, the game not only continuously gets weirder and more abstract in terms of presentation but the level design gets far more complex and whilst its nice to marvel at how brilliant Fez’s level design is (and believe me it really REALLY is) at times it can feel as though you’ve hit a brick wall. The way the game uses its core gameplay mechanic to design puzzles in intelligent and creative ways is refreshing and innovative, yet causes what can be hours of frustration because you are simply left to your own devices to figure things out for yourself. As things get more bizarre the understanding of what and why is quickly lost leading to overwhelming resentment. In particular the games maps and artifacts are utterly confusing. You’re not taught what they mean or how to read them, you’re simply left to decode the abstract drawings and shapes for yourself which is a little unfair considering they play a big part in unlocking the majority of the game’s secrets. Simply put the game puts you in a state where you won’t have the foggiest.
If you are the type of person that can accept the frustration and the slight feeling of helplessness, Fez will be a classic. Let’s not gloss over it, Fez has issues (including its fair share of bugs and glitches as well as the aforementioned irritations) but there is more than enough to make up for them. Although its level design will have you tearing your hair out as you mill through what it is that you’re suppose to do, that’s only because of a lack of support and understanding. In actual truth, Fez’s level design is at the root of the players annoyance the majority of the time but at the same time its also the game’s most gleaming quality.
As previous stated, level design in Fez has been created entirely around it’s unusual gameplay mechanic, yielding some truly spectacular results. The level of detail is incredibly in depth but to be expected from a game was in development for five years. As I previously mentioned though, levels have been designed so intelligently that it maximises the games core gameplay, forcing the user to wield there perspective traversing powers in unique and interesting ways. This is the key to Fez’s success. Designing the puzzles in such a way as resulted in utilising the games core gameplay to its fullest, challenging players to think outside the box and get creative, ultimately leading to fun, enjoyment and satisfaction.
The biggest parallel I could draw is that of Portal (or Portal 2, whichever one you liked best). Both Fez and Portal share the same ethos of taking a very simple gameplay mechanic and using it in clever & interesting ways, stretching it as far as possible, breaking as many boundaries as possible in the process. The difference is that Portal doesn’t have to contend with an aura of mystique which constantly surrounds it and therefore can deliberately shows you ALL the tools and thought processes you need. Fez on the other hand is much a piece of art than it is a game and at times it’s swayed too far in arty direction. After all, it’s OK for gamers to think for themselves but there’s a big difference in thought and blindly trying everything you can think of, and some times Fez causes you to do the later.
That said, Fez is a classic and absolutely worth the long wait. It’s managed to balance the delicate issue of being interesting and being fun almost perfectly. A visual and audible delight, accompanied by innovative, incredibly fun gameplay and an absolute must buy for just about everyone. Just don’t be surprised if at times it’s frustrating and confusing.
Graphics: 4/5 – Not super HD sleak by any means but then again, it’s not meant to be. The retro throwback graphics are quirky and nostalgic whilst the high resolution dreamscapes make for quite an interesting contract. Full of life and full of colour.
Sound: 5/5 – Absolutely outstanding. The soundtrack alone is worth the price of the game. Relaxing, memorable and… well.. perfect.
Gameplay: 4/5 – A very fun, interesting and unique take on platform puzzling. The core gameplay coupled with the brilliantly realised level design creates compelling and unique ways to solves puzzles. Whilst the difficulty may feel steep at times and you may feel a little lost, the satisfaction you get from eventually solving the puzzles more than makes up for the irritation before.
Longevity: 4/5 – Packed full of secrets and mind bending puzzles, Fez more than outweighs its 800 MSP price tag. Saying there’s lots to do would be an understatement.
Overall: 4.5 out of 5
Easily the most unique game that will be released this year. Don’t be miss out. Go and buy it.