20 years and about a billion pixels since the 16-bit and what have plugged-in gamers been clamouring to get their hands on? A game that looks straight from the 90's, albeit idealized and with colours you need more than a hand to count. Retro is all the rage with smaller developers high on ambition and low on funds - look at recent indie smashes Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, Cave Story and Spelunky - but this takes nostalgic hat-tips to a new level (or perhaps tears several levels away).
Everything is stripped down to its component parts; five green pixels wiggle and arch to give a caterpillar character, and an unbroken blue slab of colour forms a sea under a blocky world that, close-up, resembles a Crimewatch face blur. Your character Gomez is little more than a tessera in the mosaic, Little Chef in a fez with two black dots for eyes and a short, quizzical mouth.
His is an existence of flat, 2D peace. That is until a giant cuboid monolith crashes into his village, ruptures the very fabric of spacetime, and enlightens Gomez to the ultimate secret - there are actually three dimensions. The alien article bursts soon after, and it's your job to hunt its familiar bobbing collectibles (here fragments and golden cubes) and unlock new areas in a Metroidvania-style world that branches down rabbit holes and splits into secrets.
Taking creator Phil Fish's five-year-in-the-making chin-stroker at face value is a mistake, as beneath the 8-bit visuals and beepy boopy sound design lies a central concept as progressive and unique as anything today.
Using the triggers you can turn the very world on its axis, rotating levels and approaching them from one of four set perspectives to solve puzzles and traverse. It turns an otherwise danger-free and dull jump-and-grab game into a fight with your mind, to accept the concept and use your way (even if there is a distinct lack of peril).
In Fez, there is no background or foreground. In three dimensional space a tree might be planted several metres away, but on a 2D plane it's on your level and so within your reach. This can lead to some brow-furrowing moments, like attempting to pop open a chest then upon turning the world discovering it's actually a yard away, but it's a brilliant core mechanic that stretches and justifies itself through six hours of story, and another six after you've finished to discover and solve entrenched surprises and packed-in mysteries.
The concept stretches well across the time, full quirks and lessons to learn. Stand in an open doorway, for instance, and rotate the level 180 degrees to find yourself on the other 'side', all without moving your little legs an inch. Ivy dotted on the fronts, backs and sides of buildings can be joined together into one long stretch of green, taking you to new heights. Watch your footing, though, as a fall can kill you - a clever way of making sure you didn't reach the top by accident: "You got up here, now get down".
A smart gesture, but your actions never feel as purposeful as in similarly ingenious puzzle-platformer Braid. You can often just turn levels willy nilly until all the pieces align, feeling rather cheaply like hammering a square peg into a round hole. With Braid or even Limbo, if you didn't know the solution or worked a plan into place to actively achieve it you weren't getting anywhere; here you can merely spin the world to victory. It's a far from devastating flaw, more like a different creator, a different game and a different angle of approach.
Fez is more a curio you tinker and toy with and hold up to the light until it makes sense, because boy, like Braid's play on time and Limbo's gravity fun, contemplating 2D and 3D space is a tricky concept to grasp. One bawks at the mind of someone able to not only grasp it, but wield it like a toy. You've even got a talking fourth-dimensional cube as a companion (a revolving close up of it teases during loading screens). Like the game itself, it's an optical illusion turned plaything.
- A perplexing and downright unique premise
- Wonderfully retro visuals built by a caring hand
- Clever homages and fourth-wall-breaking
- Trial and error sometimes the easy option
- Mild platforming completely free from peril