The first thing that appealed to me about Fez, an independent puzzle platforming game developed by Polytron, was how adorable it was. If my childhood proved anything, it was that eight bits of detail can still make me squee with delight. I instantly knew that I would need a plushie version of Gomez, the main character that sports a cute little red fez atop his Pillsbury doughboy-like form.
But the pudgy protagonist and his sweet animations are actually the least cool thing about the game by comparison. Fez plays something like Super Paper Mario. You explore a 3D world, but in a 2D-at-a-time view. In order to navigate around platforms and objects, you turn the world on an axis, discovering new perspectives.
You have one main goal while jumping and climbing through each level: collect 32 total cubes, and/or build them through finding cube bits. A lost hexahedron is causing the universe to crumble, resulting in black holes that appear across the levels. It's up to Gomez to find these cubes to open locked doors that hold the mystery behind the imminent calamity. The fidgeting blocks of empty space that suck you in if you get too close appear when you enter and exit the same level repeatedly. Folding the world, your tesseract of a guide will tell you, creates an imbalance that results in these black holes.
The overall map in Fez is a lot larger than I had expected. There are dozens upon dozens of segments of the pixelated universe, within each of which are several levels. Each mini-world is small, and the piecemeal delivery suits the game well because it makes the puzzles manageable. Fez is a very well-designed game. Even the map itself is three-dimensional, and you can turn your view to get a 360 look at it.
If you've ever seen Fez in action, you might recognise the mossy-topped cubes and platforms under bright skies. Gomez can grab onto the grass to move around each level. But the platforming game soon becomes more complicated, as you discover new ledges and moveable ladders that redirect your movement. Things like pivoting platforms and rotating blocks of grass that connect when you change the perspective work in harmony with the game's main mechanic.
Shifting the view creates new pathways to get to previously unattainable goals. Playing around with the perspective of the level makes the world feel like it's your playground. Even though they're all carefully constructed designs, you'll feel like you're the one shaping and moulding the world. You can effectively create a new wall or edge to jump off of if you're looking at the world in the right way.
What's most interesting about these features that I stumbled on as I got further in the game was that they felt less like obstacles to my goal, and more like an introduction of a new way to play. No part of Fez felt like it was fighting my progression. It felt more like it wanted me to be successful.
But I haven't even told you the best part of Fez. While you're searching for tiny golden cubes, you'll come upon levels that have secrets embedded in them. The level of obscurity of these secrets is another nod to nostalgia. They often comprise of Tetris-looking shapes, but other times you'll have to interact with hidden objects like telescopes and simultaneously cute and creepy owls. I love how utterly confusing some of these puzzles are, and I love that you generally will not get an ounce of help in solving them.
Because you're given the luxury of taking your time with Fez, I played around in secret levels for lengthy amounts of time, refusing to believe that I could be stumped. Fez is one of those rare games where frustration actually lends itself to the enjoyment of it.
After a while of playing and gathering cube after cube, I began to wonder what the golden blocks were for exactly. So far they'd only opened doors to more levels with more cubes. What was going to happen when I finally collected all 32? What was behind that mystery door? Would there be a pay-off anytime soon? The lack of communication between game and player provides only more motivation to find out what Gomez was working towards this entire time.
And Fez does not disappoint. Everything about this game is beautiful. Its visuals, catchy 8-bit soundtrack, and cute references and characters made it a pleasure to play through. Each level unfolds with a unique atmosphere and new obstacles that make exploration an adventure. Sometimes you want to shoot things in their faces, and other times you want to kick back with a relaxing game. Just because you're not racking up headshots doesn't mean that Fez won't keep you just as engrossed. Even after finishing the game, I hadn't had my fill, but new game + came to my rescue with features that I won't spoil for you. But I will tell you that those features inspired a sense of awe, made me laugh, and surprised me in the best of ways. There really is no reason you shouldn't play Fez.