Available to download from Xbox Live Arcade
In a world where so many games are predictable, one of the great pleasures of playing Fez is that - much of the time - you won’t have a clue what’s going on. Sure, we can describe it as a 2D puzzle platformer with a clever 3D twist, or we can talk about its 8-bit bitmap art style and its retro appeal, but none of it will really prepare you for how strange, wonderful and exciting it is to actually play. In a way, it’s Xbox Live’s answer to PSN’s Journey: an inspired slice of arthouse gaming that’s like nothing else you’ve played before.
2D retro, 3D spin
Imagine the sort of weird 2D platform world we used to see in games on the ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64. This particular example is the home of a cute bear-like creature, who goes by the name of Gomez. One day, Gomez’s world is shaken by the arrival of a strange 3D cube, which gives his peaceful 2D home a sinister third dimension.
Luckily, fate is at hand, with a strange force delivering Gomez the titular red hat plus the power to manipulate dimensions. With such power, of course, comes a quest. In this case Gomez must collect 32 cubes from across the game’s different levels, so that he can unlock doors and open new areas.
As an old-school platform hero, Gomez has a fairly limited range of skills. He can jump, grab onto ledges and climb up and down specific surfaces, but that’s pretty much it. With his new fez in place, however, he can switch from one dimension to another.
It’s hard to explain, but imagine an old-fashioned 2D level transformed from a 2D screen into a 3D cube. As a 2D hero, Gomez can only navigate in two dimensions, but by clicking the left and right bumpers or triggers, you can spin the cube through 360 degrees while Gomez stands in place. Suddenly, platforms that seemed miles apart turn out to be contiguous, and doors which appeared out of reach are only a footstep away. The concept takes a little getting used to, but it’s the basis of an exceptional game.
Stretching your brain
Fez isn’t out to challenge your platforming skills or your reactions. There are no monsters to battle, and even falling to your doom is just a temporary setback. Instead, it’s all about the puzzles. How do you get from A to B? How can you find the way upwards? And as the game goes on, it throws in new wrinkles and mechanics to keep those brain cells busy.
First you’re working with bombs and fragile chunks of scenery, then you’re using wheels to rotate specific portions or nuts and bolts to move onwards and upwards. Fez can be challenging, but only because your ideas are heading in the wrong direction. For every ten minutes spent struggling with an objective, there’s a quick forehead-slapping as you realise the solution was so much more obvious than you might have thought.