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Craig Owens

Jun 22, 2013

Fez

Being download-only, it's a pity that Fez can't somehow come packed with its most essential peripherals: a notepad and pen. Beneath this indie platformer's cutesy-yet-stylish pixel art candied coating is a tantalisingly, fascinatingly arcane game – packed with codes and ciphers and secrets.

It was barely an hour before I started jotting down notes and reminders. It was considerably longer, in some cases, before I knew precisely what for. I took screenshots, too, but that's too easy – ink soaking into vellum was needed here, to thoroughly imprint Fez's alien languages and mysterious iconography into my brain.

"A fascinatingly arcane game – packed with codes and ciphers and secrets"

Initially Fez seems an altogether less taxing game: the archetypal indie-platformer-with-a-gimmick. Protagonist Gomez is a 2D sprite in a 2D world, until he's suddenly confronted with the presence of the third dimension. Well, sort of. What this means in practice is that each of Fez's intricately arranged levels is actually four. Pull the right or left triggers (or the A and D keys) and the screen will rotate 90 degrees around a vertical axis – giving you a new perspective on the same environment. And perspective is everything in Fez's world, where the gap between two platforms is literally only as big as it appears.

The beauty of the premise is that what in writing seems high-concept and abstract feels utterly natural at your fingertips – and that's a tribute to complicated yet intuitive level design. Fez's primary collectibles – 32 cubes that can appear both intact or one-eighth-sized pieces – are dotted cleverly over its environments like a breadcrumb trail. Cues such as climbable vines snake around corners, letting you know exactly which way the screen must turn. Soon you'll be leaping into the air and rotating platforms into position before Gomez lands, or twisting corkscrews into place with the aid of his magical abilities.

It helps that Fez is completely without punishment. Death leads to instant restarts, and there's no combat to distract you from mentally forging the connection between each area's four variations.

"The only real disappointment here is the port."

But there is a something modern gaming will have taught you that you need to temporarily unlearn. It's that near instinctive feeling that if you can't figure out how to open a strange door that only appears when the sun goes down, or you're utterly certain you've rinsed an area of its collectibles despite the goading insistence of the map screen, that you're supposed to come back later. In Fez, this is only half-true. Yes, the solution to a puzzle in one part of the map can be found many screens away, but it's never a new ability or item that you simply bring back and slot into the appropriate receptacle. They're always clues. Fez expects you to make the connection to what you've seen elsewhere.

Occasionally, Fez can feel too obscure – the solutions to its puzzles are so bespoke there's no universal language or logic you can apply. But the only real disappointment here is the port. The keyboard controls work fine, but the game seems to presume the presence of a 360 controller with its UI, and more irritatingly I couldn't get it to render properly above the Xbox 360's native resolution of 1280x720. That's a shame because Fez's world is stunning: colourful, varied and minutely, richly detailed.

Given creator Phil Fish's reticence to make a PC version at all, perhaps these let-downs shouldn't come as a surprise. Fez is such a spellbinding experience that it's worth getting into regardless.

Fez

A gorgeous puzzleplatformer that’s both a treat for the eyes and a thorough workout for the mind.

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