It’s doubtful that there will ever be an Xbox Live Arcade game as anticipated as Polytron’s FEZ. I wondered how the game would fare against years of previews and hype when I pressed start for the first time, but it wasn’t until sometime after completing the game that I found my answer. FEZ is a complicated nut to crack, but what waits inside is worth the effort.
Saying FEZ is ‘complicated’ is actually a disservice to the work put in by Polytron. The cliche of “a puzzle, wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in an enigma” is all-too applicable here. Puzzles are so intricately weaved through the game that they only begin to make sense several hours in, or during a second playthrough in some cases. Taking actual pen and paper notes is a necessity to solve some of the greater challenges. The air of mystery surrounding just about everything can feel suffocating, so much so that I wasn’t sure I was enjoying my time with FEZ early on. It turns out that sticking with it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
FEZ operates under the guise that it’s a collect-a-thon platformer. While some of the jumps are difficult and require precise landings, there’s no penalty for falling to your doom. You simply respawn and are free to try again. Delving deep into the depths of the world to pick up cubes is the first step, but the platforming aspect is merely the vehicle that delivers some of the most devious puzzles designed in a video game. Yes, you might need to leap from platform to platform to get to the next one, but the platforming ultimately plays second fiddle to the puzzles despite seeing the most screen time.
The puzzles are usually tied directly into the level design, which is some of the best ever put to code. The main hook, rotating the world 90 degrees at a time, lives up to its full potential. Some ledges are out of reach in one view but are inches away when you change your perspective. Explosions can carry on if they’re rotated at the edge of a wall. These simple tasks eventually give way to rotating the screen in a certain pattern or decoding an entire alphabet and number system. While you may be tempted to look up the answers, almost everything is available to you in the game if you take the time to reason it out for yourself.
Those reduced to aimless exploring can also take the time to really soak in the atmosphere. FEZ ’s world is stunning, whether you’re looking at a simple concrete lighthouse on an island or a torrential downpour in ominous ruins, it’s clear that no pixel was placed errantly. The same can be said for the placement of the notes in the soundtrack, which was composed by the ever-astonishing Disasterpeace. Each track compliments the visual mood of each area perfectly, driving home the playful curiosity or deep mystery in the gameplay.
There were points where I questioned some of Polytron’s decisions while playing FEZ, but in retrospect, the only change I would make would be to make the map a bit easier to navigate. FEZ manufactures next to no artificial motivation for you to draw upon which will be a problem for some, but those who want to find out just what the hell everything means have a long, rewarding rabbit hole to climb into.
FEZ available now for 800 Microsoft points ($10) on XBLA.