Review: FEZ

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Full disclosure: I hated Fez the first time I played it. Part of that was having a friend who insisted it was the best game ever made while I was struggling with it, and the other part was that I was struggling with it. I don’t know if I was really that much dumber a few years ago, but a second pass has vastly improved my estimation of it. The issues I took with Fez are still there, mind you, but I see now a lot more to appreciate than I did in my dimmer days.

You play as Gomez, a plucky little two-dimensional fellow living in a pleasantly two-dimensional village floating high in the sky. The town’s resident old guy sets him on a path that reveals the mythical third dimension, allowing Gomez to rotate his two-dimensional world around to see the back and sides of things, at last. Doing this also happens to break one of the important underpinnings of the universe, however, so with a friendly hypercube in tow Gomez sets about exploring this newfound multi-dimensional world and recovering the many cubes needed to keep reality from unzipping.

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I’m going to take a moment out to address the story directly (without spoilers of course, I’m not a barbarian), because you need to have your expectations properly calibrated here. The story in Fez is… well, it’s operating on a different level than most video game narratives. You have your basic “save the world by collecting things” hook to start you off but it’s going to become immediately apparent that the nature of the world is not all it seems. There’s a lot to divine from it, from the ancient cryptogram writings to the connections between realms to the very nature of Gomez’s interactions with the world. The story is just as much about the nature of the medium as it is about Gomez’s world, but you’re not going to get most of it unless you’re really digging deep.

Honestly that’s kind of the rule for getting the most out of Fez in general, but even if you don’t it’s a terribly pleasant game to run around in. The world is bright and colorful, with playful wildlife, gently wafting flora, and fascinating architecture across the many floating islands that comprise it. The details aren’t just for show, either, for Fez features one of the most intelligently-designed settings you’re going to find in gaming. Every building and ruin exists for a reason, connected to a rich civilization or representing an important aspect of the story. Clock towers, throne rooms, mausoleums, and more all pull double-duty as gameplay elements and pieces of background.

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The world of Fez is divided into floating islands connected by doors, with each representing a puzzle to suss out. Early on they’ll be straightforward climbing affairs to get from top to bottom using the game’s brilliant rotation mechanic. Fez is played in 2D but you can rotate the world 90 degrees at will, causing elements like ladders and platforms to line up differently depending on their 3D orientation. The puzzles steadily ramp up in challenge as new mechanics like timed switches and moving platforms are introduced, and then fly way past even that once you start noticing the more subtle puzzles built into the functions of the world.

If and when the charm of exploration wears off, your enjoyment is going to hinge on working out the many riddles set before you. That’s where the game lost me the first time, because the puzzles have some unique designs to them that don’t always work so well. On a basic level the world can be a bit of a pain to get around in the late game because every island is set up like a climbing puzzle, so when you’re backtracking for hidden items you’ll need to do the same jumping puzzles every time you pass through. The fast travel hubs and excellent map help cut down on this annoyance, but you’re still going to be repeating a lot of challenges if you want everything.

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On a deeper level, some of the more difficult puzzles are difficult in frankly awful ways. There are some common aggravations like QR codes and time-based puzzles that require fourth-wall fiddling with your phone or system clock. Then there are ones that call for complex stacking or button presses that are too stringent with their requirements. One of the many riddle languages in the game translates to button presses, and I thought I figured it out but none of my answers worked. After looking it up online I discovered that I DID figure it out, it’s just that I only had a fraction of a second to enter each move. And speaking of languages, there’s a replacement alphabet used throughout that might be the worst implementation of such a system possible, partially because figuring it out requires recognizing an old English idiom out of nowhere and partially because once you solve it you still have to do the translation of whole sentences and stories by hand.

If you want to see Fez through to the end, odds are you’re going to have to turn to a walkthrough sooner or later. The puzzles ramp up from clever platforming all the way to ARG-level riddles, so unless you really enjoy that sort of outside-box mulling it can get a little tiresome. Still, the world itself is creative and beautiful enough to enjoy without going that extra mile, and I’ve come to appreciate the deep implications that the full story hints at. Bear in mind it ONLY hints at them, though, because any ending you get is not exactly going to follow the conventional idea of “endings”. There’s a lot to unpack in Fez, a lot to love and a lot to puzzle over, and that should be plenty to get anyone to give it a try.

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