Intelligent Design [Fez Review]

By James Hawkins in Reviews
Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at 10:00 am
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In Fez, it would appear that you own your space. Within the realm of the game, only small, black squares of anti-space and gravity can kill you, and even then the penalty of your fate is a short animation of death and a return to solid footing. It is an exhibition of design, with a main character motored by simple piece collecting and the mystery of what's just beyond, guided by the player's ability to shift perspective. Following each new discovery is a more sophisticated, more thoroughly layered level. Fez shows off its conceptual architecture by existing as a 3D world explored in each flat frame. 

But the exploration is walled inside tightly constricted levels, governed by a very specific set of rules. Each static space is actually four different perspectives, with no single frame given depth, and a dimensional connectedness that calls up MC Escher's series, Impossible Realities. In short, it is wholly open, though each level is jigsaw-pieced together to create a limited series of navigable planes. The openness comes from how you proceed to discover.

The creative vision, functions, and aesthetics of Fez make it a quintessentially "indie" title. Its visuals drop away from contemporary polish of current generation graphics and retrofits them with a lush array of 8-bit pixels. The world is surrounded by a heavy MIDI-influenced soundtrack that recalls the hyper-pace of older arcade games, only warmed up a bit by modern quality and a softer mood. This isn't rounded edges and orchestral glow. This is a game through which we recall our experiences as youth and smile as we guide our hero, supplanting old, unattainable space with new, reachable ones.

And like other games riding this Indie Renaissance -- Braid, Limbo -- the game is dictated by a simple game mechanic that pervades the entire story, building on itself as the player progresses through. Creative Lead Phil Fish and his team have crafted a world just long enough for this world-shifting mechanic to flourish in its welcome, and not become a burdensome tactic for exploring terrain that has outgrown its use.

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Yet, as magnificently as the game works -- and it does; you'll be spinning each level to find new ways to satisfy goals that look impossible at first glance -- the one-trick pony of Fez's build isn't as fresh at it would've been four or five years ago. The now-sophisticated medium of independent games offers much more than intelligent craftsmanship. There's no mind-twisting narrative, or even enough character for us to become inured with the story, only small bits of intriguing dialogue and cryptic encounters with totems of a different age. It is the exploration of mystery, sensory nostalgia, and the satisfaction of achievement to the fullest -- not much more.

I shouldn't judge the game harshly based on what it isn't supposed to be. I just can't see Fez landing inside the realm of the truly great indie titles -- the mind-trick mechanic isn't enough for a game to separate itself from the pack anymore. Which is precisely what Fez was made to do, which I guess is how it is supposed to be.

The depth of the game is only as those fleeting moments between perspective shifts, where the true dimensions are betrayed, and quickly slip again into flatness.

The Official Verdict: 4 out of 5

This review based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher.

Tags: Fez, Review
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