Xbox Live Arcade games have evolved significantly over the years since its rapid growth in 2005. Small gems like Geometry Wars existed but for the most part the only offerings we got were games like Joust and Frogger due to the small file size limit of 50 MB. As years went on, file sizes expanded and the games became more innovative and much larger in scale. With the inception of Summer of Arcade in 2008 there has been one defining game that has wowed us off our feet every year. In 2008, Jonathan Blow brought his mind bending puzzle/platformer Braid to life to critical and commercial success. Chair tried their hand at an XBLA game and gave us Shadow Complex in 2009, a game many fans are still demanding a sequel for today. 2010 brought us the disturbingly black and white beauty of Limbo. 2011 showed us that a very passionate team, Supergiant Games could kick off the Summer of Arcade 2011 with Bastion. Continuing that trend, and although not a Summer of Arcade game for 2012, Fez stands could arguably be the XBLA contender of the year.
Fez offers its own take on the Puzzle/Platformer genre. There are no enemies, no bosses, weapons to find or magic to learn. Death has little penalty, offering to revive you from the spot that you last jumped from. It’s a game of exploration and discovery and likens itself more to Myst than Super Mario Bros. There are many places to discover and secrets to find and the game offers a very addictive reason to keep playing, as you have no idea what will be right around the next corner. The mentality of “Oh just one more room” is really driven home as you will discover some fantastic set pieces that hide secrets in every nook and cranny. From large redwood trees and mushrooms, abandoned ruins and even a creepy mausoleum the game has you guessing what will be around the next corner.
The game revolves around a boy named Gomez, who along with the other people in his village live in a 2D world. Within the first 10 minutes of game, Gomez is summoned by an entity and given the titular Fez that grants him the powers to see in 3D among the 2D world. The game play revolves completely around the powers from this hat to shift perspectives within a three-dimensional space. What this means for game play is that when you have two far apart platforms in Perspective A, pressing the trigger to switch to Perspective B will cause the platforms to be closer so you can jump the gap, then switching back to Perspective A you will have covered that larger gap by switching perspectives. Describing it can be tricky so check out the video below to get an example of it. Once you wrap your brain around the idea, the game clicks and you will be shifting perspectives back and forth in no time.
Fez offers a collectathon of items to find in every corner of the game. There 32 golden cubes to find that help open doors to newer areas, small shards that when 8 are collected that give you a brand new golden cube and even 32 Anti-Matter cubes hidden in much more devilish complicated spaces. Not only that but there are also 4 Artifacts that help with other puzzles and even more secret items to find which I won’t go into detail about here. With so much in the game to find, it would be an absolute nightmare without any kind of organization. Thankfully, the team at Polytron created a fantastic map system that shows you if you have found everything in that room by showing a golden border for that room on the map. It also shows what items are still in the room, if there are warp points available, and if there are deeper discoveries to be found by a question mark. This was completely necessary for a game of this size and Polytron did a fantastic job by making it very easy to find what you might have missed so you can go back to the rooms later if you want.
The greatest part of Fez was that it made me feel like a kid again in discovering something new. There are many puzzles that break the fourth wall by having you interact with items in the real world to get clues for the game. Without giving too much away, one type of puzzle shows you a monolith statue of a tuning fork. Standing near it, your controller will start to rumble in a very specific way, clueing you in on the buttons you must press and the order to solve the puzzle. Other puzzles might involve scanning a QR code with your smart phone to find a password that works on a specific door in the room. There is a great feeling of accomplishment when you solve these particular puzzles and drove me to keep playing to see what around the next corner. By the end of the game, I had sheets of paper with codes and solutions written down from notes I had taken from the game, something I haven’t done since I was 10 and playing Ocarina of Time.
While Fez offered a lot of to love, it is not perfect. While most of the puzzles are very clever and fun to solve, some are extremely difficult and require you to resort to learning a new language and number system to solve them. There are very little clues on how to piece these parts together and caused me plenty of frustration trying to solve the tricky puzzles. One of the puzzles also requires you to be in a specific spot at a certain time, in real-time, to get a new cube. While sounding great on paper, unless you change your internal clock on your system you will be have to wait hours and even days to have the cube appear. The game also suffers from frame rate issues quite often, especially when transitioning from one room to another and can be quite jarring when jumping between rooms quickly. There are some glitches in the game that I encountered as well, including one that completely crashed my Xbox and I had to redo some of my work prior to the crash.
I could not end this review without mentioning the fantastic soundtrack and sound design by Rich “Disasterpiece” Vreeland. The music perfectly fits the mood of the game offering a very 8-bit sound with plenty of reverb and distortion to sound like an old 80’s game. The island scenes are serene and the cemetery track are ominous and foreboding, and helps paint the picture to the vision of Fez.
It might have taken 5 years to come out, and suffered numerous delays but Fez is fantastic achievement that should be played by everyone with an Xbox 360. With a fantastic pixellated presentation, chirpy soundtrack and clever puzzles Fez stands not only as one of the best XBLA games out there but one of the best games to come out this year. Summer of Arcade 2012 has it’s work cut out for them this year because Fez has set the bar very high.