Platform: Xbox 360
Review Date: 5/6/12
It was a day like any other for young Gomez, until some old geezer gave him a magical hat and introduced him to the mysteries of the third dimension. Shortly thereafter, the universe started to self destruct, and Gomez was called upon to retrieve all the pieces of a mystical shattered cube in order to save his world. Pretty heavy stuff for a featureless white blob wearing a bright red fez.
Right away you know you're in for a special treat. The game is a throwback to the 8-bit Nintendo era, with only the modern convenience of an auto-save feature. Anyone who has ever used a code wheel or used graph paper to map out a game's environment will feel a refreshing blast of nostalgia here, and the game is a tribute to all of the great platforming classics. For the most part, the game is a 2D platformer, utilizing a bright palette of large blocky pixels. The game's one gimmick is that Gomez can rotate his 2D world 90 degrees on the Y-axis in order to reach otherwise unattainable areas, which introduces an interesting set of spatial platforming puzzles to solve. The sound effects are also taken from the 8-bit era, perfectly complementing the graphics and completing the illusion that you're playing a game from the mid 1980's. The soundtrack is a superb collection of electronic music from Disasterpeace, and available through Polytron or Amazon.com.
"Fez" is a joy to play. There are no enemies to confront, no boss battles, and nothing to hinder your sense of exploration. Discovering new areas is a constant treat, and each area has its own unique architectural style and color palette. In order to complete the game, Gomez needs to collect the fragments of 32 cubes and take them to a special temple. This can actually be done in a couple of hours, but that only scratches the surface of what the game has to offer. At first, the game is simply a fetch quest as you explore the world and collect artifacts. The platforming portions are simple for the most part, and failing to make a jump brings you back to a nearby safe point to try again. A couple of areas are particularly nasty and require split-second timing and precision jumping skills, but these are few and far between.
A couple of hours into the game, you get a sense that there's more going on. The puzzles become increasingly difficult and arcane, and the strange symbols that you see are clearly trying to tell you something. When you find your first anti-cube, you begin to see how sinister and insidious the game really is. Many of the game's secrets can only be found by solving puzzles that are presented in the Fezian language. There are three sets of ciphers that need to be decrypted: one for letters, one for numbers, and one for gamepad input. Be prepared to spend a lot of time backtracking and scribbling down symbols in order to build your vocabulary. It can be maddening, but it can also be a lot of fun if you don't let yourself become too frustrated. Puzzles come in numerous forms, utilizing sound, color, and controller vibration. By far the most jaw-dropping puzzle I encountered was a QR barcode engraved on a wall. Wow. It was a thrilling use of technology to require a barcode scanner pointed at your TV to solve a puzzle, but I was annoyed that the game assumed that everyone has access to such technology. Thankfully, I have an Android tablet that I could install a barcode scanner on, and I was positively giddy to get a response from it. A later barcode proved to be infuriating due to low screen resolution and the fact that it was moving. Reportedly, there are alternate puzzles to get around the barcode ones, but they're considerably more difficult to interpret. And finally, there are several red cubes that you can find, which are effectively impossible without help from the Internet.
As much as I enjoyed the game and for all of the fabulous things I have to say about it, it has numerous problems and falls just short of greatness. It's by far the buggiest Xbox 360 game I've played, and it crashes often. Fortunately, the frequent auto-save feature ensures that you don't lose progress, but the instability is an annoyance and breaks your engagement with the game. There are also numerous performance problems, and the frame rate becomes increasingly chunky the longer you play. It seems ironic that for such a simplistic presentation this would be a problem. Some of the puzzles are glitchy and sometimes Gomez gets stuck in an endless dying loop which requires you to restart the game. The world map is also a complete mess and is very difficult to use. While having it is better than not having it, there must be a better way to present the information. Some of the puzzles are just downright mean, and the clock tower immediately comes to mind. It only relinquishes one of its cubes every two days (in real time), which requires you to either leave the game on for 48 hours and wait for the cube to show up, or spend several hours gaming your system clock to catch it at the right time. The most maddening part of the game for me was trying to read the Fezian glyphs. This is nearly impossible to do on a standard TV as the pixels all bleed together, and it's clear that HDTV is the only way to play the game. While I could continue to complain about this point, I was pleased to discover that most of the glyphs are readable once Gomez receives a special pair of glasses that allow him to switch to a static first person perspective. Unfortunately, forced angles and distortion still keep you from reading everything. It's unfortunate there's not a zoom feature. Sadly, it's becoming increasingly evident that today's games are going to force me to upgrade my TV.
Overall, my experience with "Fez" was delightful and full of wonder. I loved the art direction and the distinct look and feel of each area. I loved the music and sound effects, and the sense of nostalgia they evoke. I loved exploring new areas and the generously forgiving auto-save feature. I only wish that the presentation were smoother and more stable.