Review: Phil Fish’s Fez is so good that it transcends any and all controversy surrounding its creator
It was always clear Fez was going to look the part. Winning an industry award for its graphics in 2008 – three years before release – was a clear indicator that developers and players alike had fallen in love with Polytron’s slick pixel art style and cutesy incidental detailing. It doesn’t disappoint in this regard – tiny four-pixel caterpillars and other adorable fauna wander around sparse, curiously isolated islands, while passing clouds cast hazy shadows across pathways awash with buckets, shovels and intricately sun-baked masonry. Lighthouses and belltowers tower over the landscape like a pixelated Myst, and the haunting synth soundtrack will take you to a similar place. But despite its stunning presentation, it’s still the gameplay within that provides Fez’s greatest case for ‘classic’ status.
Fez is set in a world which, to its cutesy, pixelated inhabitants, is experienced only in two dimensions. That is, until player character Gomez acquires – in one of gaming’s most striking prologue sequences – a dimension-warping piece of red headgear.
The titular fez sets up the simple conceit that will fuel much of the rest of the game’s platform-puzzler gameplay. A quick squeeze of LT or RT rotates the game’s environment 90 degrees, turning walls, platforms and doorways in place on a central axis. But the world itself refuses to accept this 3D shift, meaning it’s actually a rearrangement of the 2D plane – depth of field a non-issue as platforms move in mid-air to create or remove routes. Beyond a playful comment on game design, this becomes the basis for gameplay that runs magnificently with the idea, memorable moments cropping up only minutes apart throughout Gomez’s journey.
While every main area of Fez effectively concerns rotating elements around a central vertical structure, twists on this concept are many and various. From speedily rotating a tower clad in cracked masonry in order to chain together explosions from a bomb placed at the bottom, to realigning patches of ivy in timed conditions to ascend the screen, Polytron throws around new ideas – or engaging twists on established ones – with a flurry of invention rarely seen outside a Mario title.
But beyond the cheeky technical tricks and mind-warping perspective platforming lies a subtler (some would say much darker) heart to Fez. In the light of day, Gomez’s mission is to collect 32 cubes in order to balance out a world skewed by his powers, many of which have been broken into even smaller parts. But for every cube, he is told by his mysterious spectral companion early on, there is an anti-cube. And it’s tracking down all of these which really keeps Fez ticking – and when Polytron gets seriously devious. QR codes, strange diagrams scattered across the world, and even plundering the Achievements list for tips are only some of the keys to ferret out these hidden pickups, but it’s a crazed urgency that you’ll embrace until completion, threading your way round Polytron’s crazily idiosyncratic open-world masterpiece until every corner has been reached and, more importantly, understood.