When a game has won numerous awards before its launch, is one half of an industry documentary, and is developed by an outspoken, opinionated man, it resides in a universe of its own and players are relegated to describe it in one of two ways: with blazing praise or incendiary criticism.
Fez is on fire, and it burns with a brilliant, red-hot, yellow-tasseled flame.
Phil Fish of developer Polytron is an apparent perfectionist. If Fez's five-year development cycle wasn't enough of an indication, he says as much in Indie Game: The Movie, a documentary that captures the emotional aspect of independent game creation. Fish worries about the tiniest frame-rate issues and pixel glitches, redesigning the entire game three times over and obsessing over miniscule details like a madman.
I'd guess Fish isn't entirely satisfied with the final version of Fez. It runs into issues as much as any other Xbox Live Arcade title, especially an independent one, and that probably irks like crazy. I didn't experience any game-breaking mechanics problems or lag, but there was one moment a puzzle broke down completely and I had to restart the level.
Two other worlds had noticeable, predictable stuttering, mostly when jumping, but nothing so violent that it threw me off course. As these issues were quickly rectified, all I could take away was, "Man, I bet Phil Fish is pissed about that one."
In the public eye, it may be impossible to separate Fez from its outspoken, indie-famous developer. When actually playing Fez, however, what stands out is its involving gameplay and gorgeous design, making it impossible to separate it from its programmer, Renaud Bedard.
Bedard is a bit of a genius. He programmed Fez in what he calls "trixels," a 3D model similar to voxels but with more complicated properties, allowing them to appear as 2D, 8-bit "triles" while retaining their 3D properties. Players control the shift between 2D and 3D with the trigger buttons, each time stopping on a plane that appears to be an HD remake of any 1980s platformer.
The illusion is so effective that a few times I briefly forgot about the 3D shift option and attempted to play it as a strict platformer (a feat that is not possible, it should be noted). The 3D view change is seamlessly built into the worlds that Gomez, the little 2D dude with the fez hat, is tasked with exploring, and it is thrilling to watch the towers and floating islands transform with each new view.
One puzzle begins with a gigantic bell at the top of an island. Gomez can push the bell in all four directions, and that's all the information players get. I'm pretty sure I figured this one out in a few seconds, but I'm also pretty sure it was a complete accident. I've heard from other early players that this one is particularly puzzling.
Fez has players track down artifacts, treasure maps, anti-cubes and even a few QR codes, most of which served little to no purpose in my first playthrough. I have two of four artifacts and no matter how many times I pull them out and examine their ridges, I have no idea how to equip or use them.
And that owl – damn that owl.
The map itself is pretty – a constellation of trixelized stars against an inky astrological backdrop – but successfully traveling from world to world can be difficult at times. There is no "take me here" button, no magic teleportation to many of the smaller areas, forcing players to find the correct doors and warp stations, and to re-do a few worlds before reaching their true destinations. That said, every time I replayed a world, I discovered something new, something that could help my journey or was simply fascinating. The experience deepened Fez's mystery and my own hunger to reveal the secrets on every island.
I finished the game, technically, and there is still plenty more to discover, leaving the ending slightly hollow, though still deeply satisfying. I look forward to spending a few more nights unraveling the minutiae of each world, perhaps with help from friends. For you completionists out there: enjoy.
I haven't smiled as much while playing a game since my first multiplayer run of LittleBigPlanet, and even then I was only smiling because I was terrible and enjoyed frustrating my friends as they ran gracefully through the levels. Fez is comparable to Braid or Limbo in terms of recent indie platformers, but it is infinitely more heartwarming than Braid and less terrifying than Limbo.
Fez is joyful. Gomez is more expressive than a marshmallow-puff character has any right to be, and his adorability carries throughout the entire adventure. Every time he collected enough bits for a cube and he jumped up in glee, mouth wide, I mimicked him from my couch (complete with sound effects). Every time. There's a lot to be said for a game that can make a grown woman squeal with glee dozens of times in a playthrough (especially a game that doesn't star Hello Kitty).
In short, the long wait for Fez is entirely worth it. Play it, and I dare you not to smile.
This review is based on review code of Fez for XBLA, provided by Polytron Corporation. It's available on Friday, April 13, for $10.
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