Phil Fish lied to you. After five long years of development, he would have you believe that Fez, the indie darling that collected its fair share of awards prior to being released, is all about manipulating perspectives in order to collect objects. However, this part of the game ultimately serves as window dressing because the real meat of the adventure comes from pulling back the two dimensional curtain to reveal a world of mystery. That’s what makes the game such an intriguing and thought provoking experience: whatever you think Fez is, prepared to be surprised.
In Fez, you control a white humanoid creature named Gomez who lives a carefree, two dimensional life in his village. One fateful day, he receives a summons by an old, eye-patch sporting fellow who changes Gomez’s life forever. Happily exclaiming the phrase, “It’s Gomez time!”, our hero is introduced to the Hexahedron, a cube-shaped cosmic being that grants Gomez the ability to see the world for what it truly is: three dimensional. The gift comes at a cost, however, as the Hexahedron explodes and Gomez is tasked with using his new power to put it back together.
Fez is all about using your ability to shift perspective to manipulate the environment, allowing you to traverse pitfalls and access hard to reach places in order to locate the thirty two Cubes needed to repair the Hexahedron. While Cubes are essential to this task, complicating things are the presence of Cubits, the smaller, broken fragments of the Hexahedron and collecting eight of these will reward you with a single Cube. Cubits are easily located, as they can be seen floating around in the open, but hidden Cubits (which emit a soft, sonar-like ping) require a small degree of problem solving in order to flush out. Gomez’s quest to repair the Hexahedron will take him to many unique locations, each connected by a series of doors – some of which require a specific number of Cubes to unlock.
Traveling to distant lands and collecting Cubes makes Fez seem fairly cut and dry. And it is. That is, until you stumble across your first Anti-Cube. These hidden objects (which count towards your goal of locating thirty two Cubes) require solving some sort of puzzle in order to bring it into Gomez’s plane of reality. What makes the Anti-Cubes so fascinating is that they completely change the focus of the game. Instead of being a simple item hunt, Fez becomes a game about uncovering the secrets of the world around him and the role of the Hexahedron. A word of warning: solving the puzzles is not going to be an easy task. Figuring out the meaning behind the many symbols you’ll come across can be quite maddening, but on the other hand there’s a great sense of accomplishment in figuring out what the symbols mean. I had to consult a FAQ for most of the puzzle solutions and while I didn’t get the euphoric release that comes from figuring it out on my own, I was able to take a step back, look at the clues and think, “Holy hell, that’s ingenious. How was I not able to figure that out?”
Fez’s most distinctive feature is its use of pixelated, retro-style visuals that have become a staple for most indie games this generation. However, what sets Fez apart from other games is the incredible level of detail in the environments. From bricks to clinging ivy, all of the visual elements in the game look meticulously handcrafted, an effect achieved by Fish processing hand drawn maps into Photoshop before applying pixel effects. Given the fact that 98% of everything you see in Fez carries meaning behind it, this deliberate art style is a necessity. The animation of Gomez, the villagers and various critters deserve mention because they move in such a fluid, expressive way and it is easy to get caught up in watching cats chase butterflies, birds fritter in the breeze and Gomez play with his fez.
At first blush, Fez isn’t much of a game. There are no enemies to fight, no bosses to prevent you from saving the Hexahedron, but if you simply blitz through the game without taking the time to truly explore the world, you’re going to miss what makes the game so interesting. In many ways, Fez is a return for games like Myst, where the player is dropped into an alien world and expected to learn the rules and decipher alien languages with barely any guidance. Breaking codes and translating symbols is old school fun and those who count themselves fans of puzzles will find opportunities for bliss. Additional challenges await those who pursue the New Game+ mode, as the acquisition of a special item allows for the opportunity to obtain all 64 Cubes (32 Cubes/32 Anti-Cubes) and locate keys to puzzles that couldn’t be found in the first playthrough.
As unique and fun as Fez can be, the game isn’t without its faults. The frame rate started to drop half way through the game, resulting in jerky and stuttering transitions between locations and in some cases, the screen went black before putting me back into control. The in-game map is problematic because it really doesn’t do an adequate job of showing you how to get from one area to another. Instead of displaying the levels in any sort of geographical display, all of the areas are represented as cubes connected by a fine white line. Rather than point out how to get from one area to another, the map is mostly used to determine what objects – Cubes, Cubits, Anti-Cubes and treasure – can be found as well as the number of hidden rooms and chambers. This makes backtracking to and from certain areas a tricky and confusing prospect. However, these are all minor annoyances that do not impact the game in any serious and harmful way.
Fez is an interesting animal, as Gomez’s quest to seek out the Cubes needed to repair the Hexahedron becomes ancillary once you start collecting Anti-Cubes. Normally, satisfaction from a game like this would involve figuring out how to access hard to reach Cubits by manipulating objects and perspectives in a clever way. Instead, the real thrill comes from code breaking. Who cares if you got a hard to reach Cube. Did you find out what the symbols on the totems mean? Did you figure out the alphabet? Did you see that hidden string of code? Played superficially, Fez can be completed in an afternoon but to get the most value out of the $10 price tag, you’ll want to dig deep and explore a world filled to the brim with secrets just begging to be uncovered.