Thursday, 3 May 2012

FEZ: Review - Xbox 360 (XBLA)

 'HAT-eral thinking'

Do you remember the days before the internet? No? Well, congratulations you young buck, you'll outlive me by decades. Yes? Then you'll remember retro gaming as it was - a halcyon time of excited pausing and feverish scribbling of codes, cheats and solutions into the back of your gaming manual, and excited phone-calls to friends to discuss your latest discovery. Father Time is a rather changeable fellow, though. The days of paper and pencils stored near the console, and even the presence of full gaming manuals in boxes, are fading. In spite of the natural evolution of the medium, though, there remains a place in our hearts for almost anything that promises to take us back to those better times, back when gaming was magical.
One might argue that, with that, has come a kind of slow-cooked saturation of the gaming landscape, amid a plethora of pixelated protagonists. Every game and its Grandma seems to have its own fuzzy little sprite and quirky old-school mechanic. Where once there was Mario, there are now many.

It wouldn't be a great surprise, then, if Polytron's long-in-the-making labour-of-love - FEZ, were flush with made-to-measure nostalgia-trip convention. While plenty of FEZ's charm is tightly knotted up with the archetypes, far from submitting to the tropes of the genre, FEZ establishes itself as an atypical organism, pulsing with life, under a familiar skin. Met with the cutesy, pudgy, bleached shell of FEZ's lead – Gomez – a sperm-sized Stay Puft Marshmallow man, you could be forgiven for thinking you're in for another soft-core retro love-in - bright colours, blue skies, and tiered, grassy verges await. Right away though, FEZ reveals itself to be more.

FEZ is a 2D-cum-3D platformer. After sacred, cubed artefact – The Hexahedron is shattered into lots of little bits, Gomez's world is turned from a 2D hamlet, into a 3D land of discovery, throughout which, you must endeavour to retrieve each of the hexahedron's 32 splintered fragments.

At FEZ's core, lies a very simple, yet brilliant gameplay mechanic, around which the world literally revolves. Pull the left trigger to turn it clockwise, and the right trigger to rotate counter-clockwise. Each spin will expose a whole new surface area of each of FEZ's monolithic stages, granting access to previously hidden platforms, and unobtainable areas – even your physical position within a given level might change at the flick of a trigger, without ever forcing Gomez to callus his soles.

FEZ's second big reveal comes in the form of its puzzle-heavy dynamic. Far more than in any other platform game in recent memory, you are required to think your way from A to B. From almost the first moment that you are set free among the available dimensions, you are challenged to think laterally about, what in most of FEZ's peers, would be rudimentary hops from one platform to the next. FEZ boasts a bevy of secret wonders, often uncovered by looking at your world differently than other games might have you used to. Starting out as it does – with a decidedly creative approach to even the games' most basic elements, acts as both a measuring-stick, and a big fat warning-sign, for what is still to come.

At its most devilish, FEZ is bastard-hard. Not for its platforming elements, so much as its puzzles. Collecting most of the rogue yellow pieces is straightforward enough, and is usually a matter of exploration and typical platforming action. Accompanying these cubes are 'anti-cubes' - invisible until specific actions have been achieved, and very hidden. In many games you'll be met with a tangible route to the answer on screen, even hints after a period of stasis. FEZ makes no such commitment. Often enough, a puzzle won't be apparent so much as an empty room, with absolutely no ostensible objective, no evident hint or clue, and no apology. With no alternative but to show the room in question a reluctant pair of heels, you'll head elsewhere. And FEZ has a lot of elsewhere.

Unusually, FEZ is as non-linear a platformer as one could wish for. Pausing the game will fire you out into a wide-angle view of FEZ's universe. At first only your immediate surroundings will be visible, along with the nearest unexplored level – highlighted in grey. As time progresses and stages are ticked off, the amazing extent of zones – spread across different lengths, breadths and depths becomes clearer, and clearer, and clearer. Each level you encounter feels like it has one hundred secrets, each side of the stage will have a number of doors, some will lead to a room with a little yellow cube fragment and nothing else, some will lead to a whole new plot, with another hundred mysteries to solve, you just don't know until you go. FEZ is a Russian doll, exposing more intricacy with every button press, and never quite revealing its end.

It's a shame that the physical map itself, is slightly tricky to use – often it will be needed to plot your course. Zooming right out will show everything, but sometimes the 3D nature of the map will make it hard to establish which stage is linked to which. The map can be rotated and twisted, but these functions never seem to give you the freedom to properly fly through the terrain. These gripes could be forgiven but for the fact that orienting yourself in the world often, is necessary given its three-dimensional build. That aside, FEZ does a great job of making the experience of testing the possibilities across the land a compulsive and rewarding one.

Back-tracking can become cumbersome until all available warp-gates have been found – these act as fast travel portals from hub to hub. That said, the environments you'll encounter along the way make each step one worthy of wide-eyed contemplation and drawn breath. Sun rises and sets with a serene, real-time ebb in FEZ's coastal vistas, underground sewer levels – viewed through a murky-green haze juxtapose with candy-pink trees and purple village buildings. The variety is staggering – one moment you'll be at the foot of a twittering woodland backdrop, the next, climbing on jet-black blocks - only exposed by flashes of lightning and rain, falling from freshly-soldered skylines and microchip clouds. Other levels offer everything in their aesthetic, from the bizarre to the surreal.

All the ocular-candy is only further embellished by some simply dazzling sound-design. At times ethereal, other times subterranean – drips and drops in the sewers resonate and echo, and always carrying a digital vibe. FEZ's audio is an 8-bit whale-song, always there but never intrusive, every twist of the terrain, or thud as you land from a jump, the squeak as you brake and change direction, every lap of the tide, each tiny part - and the aural elements as a whole, are masterful.

While at times, the platforming can feel a little awkward, and Gomez doesn't posses the array of onesies of, say, a Mario, or the dexterity of Banjo and Kazooie, FEZ supplements it's offering with nice variety in its basic gameplay. A wealth of levers, switches, gyrating or moving platforms, hidden doors and treasure chests will all help keep your attention for long enough. The environments aside, there are some thrilling moments of frantic action - a bum-clenching getaway from rising lava is particularly memorable, timing each jump to the second. Moments like these in games make for great platforming, because in their construct, they create such tension that even a simple press of one button can become a challenge, and deliver an intense satisfaction when completed. Sadly, these moments of levity are rarer than they might be, considering just how much FEZ does offer. Most of FEZ's jumpy-bits are rather more steady-as-she-goes, as you endeavour to get to point x and grab that collectible. Aside from the cubes, there are maps and artefacts to accrue, all of which are relevant to the bigger picture.

The variety of ways FEZ will encourage you to complete puzzles is astounding - all the information is there for you, if only you can see it. Some of it is hidden in plain sight, some is more subdued, but when those eureka moments happen, FEZ feels as rewarding as it gets. Further to its credit is the New Game + feature, one that far from a tertiary inclusion, is essential to your hopes of fully beating the game.

While you might find yourself fed-up with the head-scratching nature of some conundrums, and FEZ does walk a tightrope between challenging and impossible, overall, the game offers a variety of levels of challenge, without ever having to pause and change a difficulty setting. FEZ's puzzles are hard, sure, but aren't all necessary to complete in order to reach a second run through. Similarly, there'll be plenty of times that you'll plummet to your doom, but FEZ's frequent auto saving and never-death mean that should you turn yourself into a pixel-pizza, you'll instantly respawn at the platform from which you fell. The cheev-lovers among us will certainly want to put the time in to getting that last item, but Polytron has put in an admirable shift in ensuring that while, at its height, FEZ is as taxing an experience as you might dare to wish for, it is still accessible to those with a more casual bent.

The lack of hand-holding certainly runs deep, though, and it's worth pausing on whether the level of obscurity and nebulous nature of just what the hell you are meant to be doing, will alienate some, rather than embrace. There is a bigger picture to the world of FEZ, and the game becomes a different beast when, whether through guile or simple luck, you stumble across it. While not resorting to diegesis is a positive step, the danger Polytron face, is that there are a whole heap of more instantly gratifying products available on the marketplace, just a couple of flicks of your analogue away. There are few real gripes to be had, FEZ's unique challenge is one that could be viewed a number of ways, occasional frame rate slow-down is a detractor, too, but is a rarity, unlikely to damage your experience much.

The scale and greater meaning of the fibres that complete FEZ's digital universe are such, that it is unlikely that any one man or woman will ever uncover all of FEZ's mysteries, unaided. While the formula isn't perfect, FEZ does something astounding. Far from relying on it's magnificent blend of old-fashioned audio and visuals to carry itself, FEZ casts an inexpungible water-mark on the Xbox Live Arcade. FEZ takes your hand and leads you back to what it used to be like, pencil and paper in tow. To experience the enormity and true significance of this wondrous achievement, you'll have to pick up the phone (or use the internet) and talk to your friends. A game that might challenge the way you look at gaming itself, FEZ is a single player game alright, but one you simply won't be able to truly play alone.

Mecha Score 9.0

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