What if we turned our head to the left and looked at the blocks from this angle? What if we jumped every time there was a slanted line, and held the left trigger whenever there was a square? What if the secret to opening this door involves standing still for twenty minutes? Is this a glitch, or are we supposed to be able to fall out of the window? Is that a QR code on the wall? Should we talk to more owls? Yes, all of these are perfectly valid questions you'll be asking as you experience Polytron's Fez.
Fez is more about cryptography than it is platforming. Sure, there’s plenty of jumping around from object to object and climbing things, but that’s only surface-level stuff. It’s deeper – much deeper – than initially anticipated, proving to be an absolutely magical, albeit maddening experience.
It starts off as we expected, giving us control of Gomez, a 2D sprite living in a 2D world with 2D people and 2D things. Everything is flat, sprite-based and adorable, until Gomez is gifted the titular Fez that bumps everything into the third-dimension. This magical, mysterious hat lets the shoulder buttons break free of the second dimension, allowing Gomez to shift the four-sided world over. A giant block also happens to explode once he gets his fez (a tragic coincidence), and for the remainder of the game he needs to travel the world collecting small cubes that can be used to make larger blocks. Collecting blocks opens doors, which lead to other rooms with more doors and blocks and treasure maps and anti-cubes and artifacts.
His ability – to shift the world around on an axis – has plenty of practical uses. Gomez can rearrange the dimensions to line up objects that otherwise wouldn’t connect and reach platforms in previously inaccessible places. It becomes more complicated than that as the game goes on, adding in other interesting elements that play with the unique formula. If you’re signing up for Fez specifically to jump on things, you’re not going to be disappointed; it does that well. When it puts on its platformer hat, Fez has some of the smartest design we’ve seen in years, with mind-bending segments that require precision timing as well as a mastery of the game’s unique world-shifting mechanics.
But eventually, we ran out of places to go and doors to open, and were drastically short of the number of cubes we needed. We opened the map (which became more vital as the web of interconnecting doors became more wild) to see dozens of rooms we didn’t (or couldn’t) get to – some with question marks hovering above them, hinting that there are secrets to be found. This’ll happen after a few hours of play, causing the game to suddenly transform from cute, indie platformer to absurd, puzzle-cracking masterpiece.
Those doors and cubes we mentioned earlier? They’re important. Very important. A major part of Fez is finding out how to open doors that lead to different areas that include more cubes. These doors oftentimes have very specific button presses needed to open them. Usually, you’ll need to hit the right combination of buttons, as prompted by a nearby object, in order to pass through; then, and only then, will the door open.
Sounds simple, right? Well, there’s a problem: although the code needed to open the door or access a cube is usually written in the room, it’s often hard to find – covered by an object, or hidden in a picture. What’s more, the codes aren’t written in English. Or Spanish. Or any actual recognizable language at all. They can be blocks, or squiggly lines, or shapes representing numbers.
That’s where things go from complicated to… well, a lot more complicated. There are several languages in Fez composed of strange shapes and blocks that need to be deciphered, and while we found an in-game machine that told us how to crack one of them, others were more elusive. Fez will throw hints at you from time to time, but they’re always cryptic, never revealing fully their meanings without a lot of work on your part in decoding them. There are artifacts that we think help you crack some codes, and signs that might help solve some others, but they end up being tough puzzles in and of themselves.
It’s unlike anything we’ve ever experienced in recent memory. Deciphering a code on a page of crumpled paper on our coffee table and inputting it to reveal a new door – which would often lead to a web of new, connected rooms – was enthralling. These new areas might look like the rooms we’d explored before, or they might be wildly different, with unique art styles or new sound effects. Diving in to discover a new language carved into stone totems was like stumbling onto an ancient ruins or the remains of an alien planet, and learning their language was the key to delving even deeper.
This was as ambitious as it was dangerous. Gameplay difficulty is on a sliding scale and crossing over into “too hard” territory can wreck a game if not handled flawlessly. Fez navigates the line between challenging and brainbusting perfectly, dripping just enough information and giving the right amount of clues needed to progress.
The fact that only half of the game’s 64 cubes are needed to finish the game helps balance out this difficulty, though we were still set back from time to time by occasional glitches that got in the way of figuring out some of the puzzles. Fez doesn’t shy away from breaking the fourth wall and requiring you to go outside the game to solve puzzles, and it’s also not above the occasional fake-out glitch or surprise. Because of how eccentric the design is, it’s sometimes hard to tell when the game is providing another deceptively meta moment and when it’s honestly breaking.
The best puzzle games have the ability to make the player feel inversely smart and stupid. Fez takes this further than any game we’ve ever played, giving us the feeling of being both cackling genius and babbling idiot within minutes of each other. It’s an absolute triumph in creating something new both in terms of its platforming and its puzzle solving; blending together genres in ways we’ve never seen.
It’s about opening doors, exploring, deciphering languages, and dipping your toe into the well of insanity just enough to hopefully come out with the knowledge needed to open one more door, to get one more cube. We’re sure some will be turned off by the dense, unorthodox style – it’s absolutely not for everyone – but we’re in love, and expect to spend many more hours unraveling the game’s secrets.
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