The owls are not what they seem
This review is also posted at my game writing portfolio, Visual Memory Unit. Would you kindly pay a visit?
Fez has been a long, long time coming. And after playing through it, I can definitely see how that time was spent. What at first appears to be a clever puzzle game ends up being something much bigger. Beyond its moment-to-moment perspective shifting and platforming lies a tangled web of meticulous, ridiculously complex mystery.
Fez is a game about opening your mind and perceiving what's around you in new ways. Gomez, the cute pixelated protagonist, lives in a two-dimensional world. But it's not long at all before the aging Geezer imparts to you a sacred and fundamental truth about his existence - the third dimension, and its impending collapse in the world. After donning his magical, titular headwear, Gomez can spin the world around him in 90-degree increments. This essentially allows you view four different faces of a 3D cube. So although you play Fez in two dimensions, you must always be thinking about where you are in the greater, three-dimensional space. Using tricks of perspective is the only way to navigate through the world, and you'll usually need to shuffle your view around to find a path forward. It sounds difficult in writing, but Fez does a great job of keeping this concept manageable with intuitive level design and low-pressure gameplay. You're almost never under any sort of time constraint or anything like that, and so free to flip the world around at your leisure, see how the different platforms and geometry line up from different angles, and take the next step accordingly.
You'll feel like a natural in no time, twisting the world around Gomez to collect cubes and cube fragments - the tally of your progression, like stars in a Mario game - which will restore stability to the third dimension and bring you ever closer to the game's closing moments. You'll need thirty-two cubes to reach the end of the game, but an equal number of devilishly hidden anti-cubes are also waiting to be uncovered (and contribute to your total needed to complete the game).
Without giving too much away, I'll just say that trying to collect everything in the game will require far more than light platforming skills and a mind for perspective. You'll definitely want to bring a pen and paper along with you; some of the secrets in Fez are almost ludicrously complex. There is a symbol language to decode, iconography to suss out, subtle controller vibration cues to look out for, and all sorts of other tricks that hide the cubes and wrack your brain. To explore these situations further in this review would be robbing you of Fez's fundamental joy; its utmost respect for you as a player. Not only are the puzzles in Fez unique, but they are presented in a way that is different from nearly all modern video games. There are no obvious hints that spell out what you need to do before you even get a crack at it. It's up to you to explore and find this information, and even then, it's seldom in one place. You'll need to remember and piece together things that may have deeper connections to one another. The majority of people who play Fez could never hope to figure out everything in the game by themselves, like myself. After finishing up my game with a small majority of the collectables, I went online and saw how some people are analyzing the subtext and most intricate mysteries in the game, and was simply astounded by what I saw and learned.
If the idea of working out codes and other heavy cerebral lifting in a game sounds horrible to you, then you probably won't take a shine to Fez. I certainly felt frustrated at points, especially since the world of the game can be explored in any order, meaning it may be some time before you stumble upon a few key rooms that help set you up for the secret society that lurks underneath the game's gorgeous array of environments and moody chiptunes. Once you do begin to make those connections and see the game's true face, though, the payoff is something really special, and a logical extension of the Fez's theme. You will see this game in a completely new light between when you start and finish it, and it makes a bit of truly unique headway for games along the way, in spite of a few missteps the game does unfortunately suffer.
Its controls can be less than ideal in certain situations. Gomez can get a little sticky on some of the climbable vines in the game, especially when you're using the perspective changes to line up otherwise unconnected areas to climb on. His jump, too, can be a little tricky to handle when the game presents you with some tiny platforms. Most of the time this isn't a problem, as you're moving around and exploring completely at your own pace. A few areas employ some timed switches or constantly rising water levels, though, and during these rushed moments the controls definitely falter a bit.
The map likewise buckles when you truly need it the most, and it's definitely my biggest peave with Fez. I didn't really need it for the most part; after spending some time with the game, it's usually simple enough to navigate from one area to the next, and the pop-up preview of the next area that appears when Gomez is near a doorway are pretty helpful. But when you're not just exploring and really want to get to a specific screen, or if you plan to track down every last secret and collectable in the game, the map is a mess. Shapes are spread all over the screen, forking out to other connected areas with thick white lines, presented at different depths in a 3D layout. It is definitely a headache to sift through, especially since the world of Fez is not contiguous in any way, but a series of independent, floating islands. At least the map does keep track of which areas you've completely cleared, and a few warp gates and shortcuts help you get around a little faster.
Finally, a few minor technical issues have been popping up for some players. I definitely noticed some slowdown and stuttering when you first step foot in a large area, and it did cause me to die a few times. But since there's virtually zero penalty for dying, this isn't such a big deal. Crashes to the dashboard are certainly a bigger deal, but I never experienced a full-on crash in my eight or so hours with the game. Nevertheless, these elements stand as poor in an otherwise outstanding product.
Really though, Fez is so good that these drawbacks barely hamper the overall experience. This is a game you should absolutely play, if you can. After I reached the end of the game, I immediately started a New Game + so I could head out and look for everything I missed. A very helpful function is also added into your second playthrough that seems pretty key to figuring out the game's biggest conundrums. Fez is the kind of game that, if it manages to hook you, it'll really hook you. If you're not the type who's into having a pen and paper next to you when you're playing a game, then Fez may very well drive you nuts. But I'd urge you to give it a chance anyway. You don't need to get into all of the wild code-breaking and subtext to enjoy and finish the game, but maybe you'll be passing by the big waterfall and wonder how to get inside the door hidden behind it. Or maybe an ever-watching owl statue will get to you. You just might find yourself scribbling in a notebook, hashing out the secrets to one of the most inventive games to come out in some time.