Fez is fantastic. The hype is justified, and the rave reviews are all true. If you have held off on buying this platform puzzle game because you suspect that it is just another load of over-rated indie wank, then fear not. For while Fez is indeed very, very strange, it's also one of those rare games with the power to totally capture your imagination.
You control Gomez, a little dough-boy pixel person who has lived his entire life in a retro-looking 2D video game village – a cluster of cubes floating in a chunky sky. Our hero soon receives The Call to Adventure, and learns some terrible secrets into the bargain: That his world actually exists in three dimensions, not two, and that an ever-growing plague of dark matter threatens to destroy all of reality. As Gomez, you must save the universe by collecting a set of golden cube fragments that have been scattered across 150 or so brain-breaking levels.
So far, so standard. But Fez has a gimmick: Every level is assembled from blocky structures suspended in 3D space, yet you view them face-on, and move strictly via 2D platform-jumping conventions. Tapping either bumper button will rotate the level 90 degrees to the left or right, each move creating radical shifts in the landscape. Two platforms may at first appear to be separated by a yawning chasm, but a single swing of the camera could be all it takes to make them hopping distance apart. As in the cult PSP game Echochrome, reality is perception, and perception is subjective. The challenge is to use these sneaky optical illusions to your advantage.
Most levels are suspended over bottomless pits, so it's lucky for us that Gomez is effectively immortal. Should he fall to his doom or get sucked into a black hole, he'll simply flash, rewind, and re-spawn at a safe place just before you cocked up. There are no enemies to worry about, either. The closest thing to an antagonist is the games creator, Phil Fish, who has riddled his freaky game world with cryptic codes and puzzles.
The tough platform-jumping challenges contrast starkly with the visuals – the repetitive patterns and pleasing colours appear to have been chosen to release optimum levels of dopamine in the player's brain. A wry sense of humour is evident; Gomez is no Gears of War DudeBro, and struggles to haul himself up over platform ledges thanks to his copious rolls of digital flab. When moving through the doorways that link zones his bulk shifts ponderously, as though his very fat cells were daydreaming.
The game world itself seems blissfully unaware of its impending doom. Birds emit digital chirps while resting atop cubic bonsai shrubs, and the realms surrounding Gomez's village are mostly run-down temples, sleepy forests, and graveyards. It's beautiful, yet desolate. Fez doesn't deliver a story so much as a mellow, captivating experience. A vibe. Above all, it's this incredible sense of atmosphere that makes Fez so special. The haunting music, warped physics, and dizzying array of puzzle challenges conspire to suck you in. It's a digital 'Rarebit Fiend' – the kind of dream you have after eating loads of cheese right before going to bed.
Fez is engrossing, but it is not perfect. The puzzles are quite difficult, and more vexing still is the map screen, and the obtuse way the game world has been slotted together. No doubt after five or so years weaving the labyrinthine maps of the Fez multiverse, Phil Fish has an instinctive grasp of precisely where all the games warp gates will take you. A newcomer greeted by a 3D lattice of cryptically annotated cubes my find things a tad heavier going.
There have also been widespread reports of the game failing to work on early model Xbox 360s. If you own an older system that has so far miraculously failed to explode, now might be a good time to splash out on an upgrade. But quibbles aside, Fez is brilliant.