++Good Games Review: Fez

You can’t talk Fez without talking Phil Fish and his flash-in-the-pan tenure in the public eye.

There, I mentioned him, and while I have a wide variety of opinions on the guy and some things he’s infamous for having said, this isn’t ++Good People.

So, with that out of the way, let’s discuss the game, shall we? Fez is a love letter to video gaming. It borrows nostalgia, binds it to a modern idea, and dumps the player into the world, allowing them to explore to their heart’s content, all while getting out of its own way. Sound simple? That’s because it is. Fez does not innovate, but what it lacks in technical revolution it makes up for with such a profound understanding of what video games are, were, and should be. Simple, and fun. Simplicity is the golden core at the center of game design (or design of any sort, if you ask me), and Phil understands this. And through his understanding, he puts design to great use, achieving impact through simple means.

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Developer: Polytron Corporation
Publisher: Polytron Corporation // Trapdoor // Microsoft Game Studios
System(s): XBLA, PC, PS3, PS4, PS Vita
Release Date: April 13, 2012
ESRB: E for Everyone
MSRP: $9.99
Words: James Bacon

Fez doesn’t dwell on story for very long. It establishes the world, and gives you a reason to go on your quest, but beyond that, it just lets you be… an approach a lot of modern games could benefit from, should they choose to employ it. The little, white, fluffy population loves their two dimensions, and when a big, scary cube shows up, fragments itself, and then scatters to the four corners of their flat universe, everyone becomes fearful. The Fez you, Gomez, wear allows you to control these cube fragments (all smaller cubes in and of themselves), and as such, it is your responsibility to gather up the chunks and return everything to its normal state.

The gameplay is also simple. It’s a vertical platformer at its core, with one exception: you can rotate the world 90 degrees, exposing four different sides to your eye – only one at any given time; the world of Fez exists in a 3D space, but only presents itself in two dimensions; a ledge you couldn’t reach before becomes a stepping stone when observed from another angle, and paths not visible become clear only when manipulated – in order to create platforms and paths to your goal. It is in this mechanic that Fez invests its brain bending puzzle elements, expanding the purview of the game, but its synergies between systems keep it from becoming confounding or, far more condemning, misunderstood.

The chiptunes are excellent. It evokes emotion while maintaining a true 8-bit origin. In fact, I’ve never quite heard anything like it, and while I’m not an expert on the genre, nor have I hear close to everything out there; I can say with a measure of certainty that it makes a very strong case for the artistic merits of chiptunes, contrary to popular opinion.

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The map, though merely a navigation tool, deserves special mention. It’s a bit of a challenge to learn how to read it correctly, but as you discover more and more levels, and the map swells larger and larger, you can’t help but stand in awe. This thing, by the end, can show you precisely how large the Fez universe is at a single glance, yet it maintains visual order in a way that isn’t confusing in the least (again, once you learn it).

Speaking of those level unlocks, holy crap, are there a ton of them. And it’s always satisfying to unlock more and more. To delve deeper and deeper into this whimsical, classy, neo-retro insta-classic; because you know it was your brain working out these 2D jump puzzles in a mostly hidden 3D space. And the rewards just keep rolling in (in the form of more levels to conquer, and more cubes to collect).

I know I said I wasn’t going to mention it, but as there is literally nothing I can find wrong with the game, I had to turn to darker sources… Phil was under a lot of negative pressure when he said the things he did (the comments about Japanese games in particular), and once met with public outrage, it was enough for him to pop. I completely understand him, though. He was going through the dissolving of a friendship over Fez, as well as subsequent legal battles. He was in a negative place, and once met with more negativity, he reacted with volatility.

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The glorious map.

Subsequently, due to community outrage, the sequel was canceled before development even began. It hurts my heart what happened to Phil, and we are all hurt as a community that such a passionate man as he has decided it’s time to clock out of this industry, for good. No more Fez 2… but on a deeper level, we lost his passion for games. We will never be able to recover that, and shame on those of you who feel justified in your petulant outrage that cost us all his vision.

Verdict – 10/10 (++Good): The simple presentation, coupled with the obvious passion that went into making it allows for an emotional impact while playing that isn’t often achieved, let alone sought out in development. This emotion doesn’t come from a plot point, or character interaction, like the bigger budget games of our day. It comes from experiencing the game. Every jump, every rotation, every small animation. The colors, the pixels, the chiptunes. All of it assaults you relentlessly with such overwhelming beauty… I dare you to say anything bad about a man who just gets it like Phil does, and then has the fortitude and excellence in execution enough to share it with all of us. Shame on you.