April is one of those in-between months when it feels like all my most anticipated games are a good six months away, and no amount of refreshing my Amazon pre-order page will make Bioshock Infinite head my way any sooner. Thankfully, a bumper crop of excellent downloadable titles were released conveniently during this early springtime lull, just when I needed them most.
FEZ, one of the stars of the bunch, is a quirky side-scrolling platformer from Polytron Corporation. At first glance it seems like it might be nothing more than another indie throwback 2D side-scroller with a clever gimmick. However, there are hidden depths to this deceptively simple game, and I think the hype is more than justified. Read on to find out more about this gorgeous little side-scroller.
FEZ opens in the tiny 2D village that our hero, Gomez, calls his home. The other villagers seem perfectly happy with their two-dimensional lives, but when Gomez is called up to the top of the village to receive his inheritance – the titular headwear – he discovers that there are more dimensions to the world than he believed. Wearing the fez gives Gomez the ability to spin the world around him, revealing hidden items and secret pathways.
However, when Gomez tries out the fez, he inadvertently causes an explosion that breaks apart a giant three dimensional cube, the pieces of which are then spread throughout the world. Gomez’s mission, then, is to find all the pieces of the cube before the world falls apart and gets sucked into a black hole (you know how it goes). He’s joined on his journey by Dot, a shimmering creature who acts as travel guide for Gomez during his adventures throughout the world outside his village.
This early sequence does a good job of setting the tone for FEZ’s cheeky combination of meta humor and surrealism; when the cube explodes, the game “crashes” and takes you back to the start screen, but the world isn’t quite the same when you start again. As for Dot, she(?) is a refreshingly unobtrusive companion, only appearing to call your attention to interesting things, never dragging down the game with exposition or hand-holding.
FEZ takes the basic building blocks of the side-scrolling platformer and subtly builds on them in new and interesting ways. The first and most obvious is the rotation mechanic, which always feels like uncovering secrets; platforms that seemed impossibly far away suddenly move closer, and the ladder that was broken in one view is now lined up perfectly in another. The world is also free from enemies or bosses, and death has no real consequences, but death and destruction aren’t really the point.
Instead, the main focus of FEZ is on exploration. Most platformers are strictly linear, with only one “correct” path, but FEZ presents you with a good half-dozen options on most levels, many of which branch out into another half-dozen or so doors. If you’re the kind of player who goes through the first door you see on a level, you may end up traveling six levels deep before you reach a dead end. You’ll also find hidden doors in out-of-the-way places that open up huge unexplored sections of the world. I finished the endgame but still haven’t finished exploring all of the available paths.
One of the most striking things about FEZ is its chiptune soundtrack by Disasterpiece. It has the feel of a classic videogame soundtrack filtered through the sensibilities of modern electronic and ambient music. When you go through a door in FEZ, the music swells and a new level slowly floats up from the background. It gave me chills every time. Naturally, I ended up buying the soundtrack – a great deal at five dollars – as soon as it was released.
I also love that FEZ builds up a palpable sense of mystery throughout. As you explore the world, you stumble across strange symbols, unexplained hieroglyphs, and alien languages. Deciphering these secrets is by far the most challenging aspect of the game, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. If you’ve read up on the game elsewhere online, you may have discovered communities of people working feverishly on translations and interpretations. I get the impression that there are even more secrets yet to be discovered.
FEZ falls right in the sweet spot of challenging gameplay, exciting world-building, and reasonable playtime (my play-through took about six hours total). It offers excellent replay value, with a new game plus mode that lets you continue exploring after finishing the endgame, and a wealth of secrets yet to be discovered by obsessives on the internet. Highly recommended.
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