Indie games that become popular tend to be over-praised. I could name a dozen games from the last few years that struggle to live up to the fervent love showered upon them by adoring fans. I hesitate to name them because you end up truly offending people. Inevitably, you are asked “I bet you like Call of Duty, don’t you?”, and from that point on, you know that you can’t win, because no matter what you say or how valid it might be, you’ll never convince your opponent your issues with said game are anything but complaints from someone with no taste. In their eyes, they feel it’s like a Britney Spears fan badmouthing Mozart.
It’s understandable then that I approached Fez with some apprehension; I’d been burnt more than a few times before. From Limbo, through Braid and back again, the indie world is full of games that don’t live up to the hype. On Metacritic, as of writing this review, there are over thirty publications giving Fez scores of 90 and over, six giving perfect scores. That’s, of course, not counting the thousands of sites not included on Metacritic. It’s a critical hit and the cynic in me can’t help but ask whether the game deserved those scores or whether it was a case of a “plucky developer” making something “innovative”. It really didn’t take me long to get my answer.
For some reason, the beginning of the game reminded me quite a bit of the old adventure games, Dizzy and the like. You could talk with other characters, explore an unusual town and visit people’s houses. It was fun, but it’s something that has been visited a lot in recent years, most notably by Cave Story (and if you want to get picky, the Dizzy re-release on iOS). Climbing to the top of the village, the story began and you and your character, the 2D Gomez, are thrust into a three-dimensional world. Your adventure still takes place on a fully 2D plane, but you can change the perspective at any time, seeing the world from a different 2D angle.
If that sounds confusing, and I know it does, I strongly suggest you take a look at the game’s trailers, or videos of people playing the game on YouTube. It’s a simple button press and it works rather well, making each level at least four times as large as it first appears to be. Sometimes changing perspective will help you get closer to your goal, and sometimes you’ll use it to reach previously unreachable places, but overall it’s a nice feature and well implemented. It gives Fez a real twist, both literally and figuratively. There are more than a few games that have tried the 2D-to-3D thing before, but Fez will be the game that is remembered as the first to get it 100% right.
Its graphics are partly what reminded me so much of Dizzy. Built seemingly pixel by pixel, Fez is definitely trying to replicate the retro look and it does so very well. It still manages to produce crisp, colourful environments and the level design is above average. You’ll occasionally come across levels that don’t really make sense or that are frustrating to traverse (as opposed to difficult), but for the most part they’re fine. Retro-buffs will see the whole thing as an HD throw-back from the late eighties, early nineties; more modern gamers will probably see it as a series of Minecraft-esque masterpieces. The developer really can’t lose. Similarly, the chiptune soundtrack will be well loved by people who like that sort of thing, but I can’t really say I’d listen to it outside of the game.
When I mentioned that Fez was an adventure game, I meant it rather more specifically than the general “there is an adventure involved”. Fez is an adventure in itself, there are no real threats – nothing that actively attacks you – and if you manage to die there’s a good chance that it’s entirely your fault. Fez isn’t about completing goals, it’s about having an adventure. You can explore its large open world in any order you like, making it ideal for people who want a no-pressure adventure that will last a long time: an adventure on their terms. Whether you want to continue finding hidden secrets or just want to see how long it will take you to make it from spot A to spot B, Fez has you covered.
That turns out to be something of a mixed blessing. Sure, it’s fantastic to be able to do what you want whenever you want but unlike, say, Fallout – in which you are given missions to perform or specific items to collect – you’re given a general quest, to find and collect 32 cubes, and a set of general side-quests and just told to get on with it. Unlike ICO, to which I wouldn’t hesitate to compare Fez, there’s no real incentive to go on your quest, and less reason to continue through to the end. If you enjoy exploring on your own initiative and are happy to make your own game out of that exploration, Fez is definitely for you. If you are easily frustrated by a lack of forward momentum, you’re probably best avoiding it.
Sure, there’s a slither of thrill when you come across a new area, but then it comes to a point where you can no longer progress and no longer open new doors without further exploring places you’ve already been to. The world ends up feeling much, much smaller, and you’re left wanting to play something else. I’ve come more than once to points where I look at the in-game map (not the easiest thing in the world to use) and ask myself “and what in the hell am I supposed to do now?”. That’s not down to having too many options from which to choose, but through not having enough. As I’m sure anybody who has played Infamous can attest, searching an open world for a single small object that generally only shows up on a map can be pretty frustrating.
I do like Fez; it’s a game that I feel manages to avoid the pretentiousness that surrounds other, similar platformers like Braid and Limbo. Once you get over the “interesting” new feature, there’s still a game to be enjoyed and played at length, a key component of any game and something that many indie developers tend to miss out on. With that said, it isn’t really pushed far enough, and you’re left with little reason to carry on to the end. By the time you’re halfway through, you’ll feel you’ve seen everything you’re likely to see and, without a conclusion in sight, the whole thing seems to become something of a drudge.
No matter how much you play, whether you get through to the end or hardly make it out of that initial village, you’ll still love the journey. And that’s what Fez is about: the journey. As anybody that has ever gone on a journey will attest, however, sometimes it’s important to know the destination if you want to avoid questioning such a long trip in the first place.