Fez's framerate issues and abstract puzzles are extremely taxing, but incredibly rewarding and worth every minute.

User Rating: 8.5 | Fez X360
Among artsy indie games, there have been a lot of compelling puzzle-platformers in recent years. Games like Braid, Limbo and Closure may at times take themselves a bit too seriously, but they still rank among some of the most intriguing and beautiful games in the indie-space, if not all of gaming. They tease mystery, ambiguity, and encourage you to give yourself up to them before they let their deeper meaning be revealed.

The next game in that lineage, Fez, is essentially the vision of one man, Phil Fish.

Given its lone creator and rather troubled five-year development cycle, fans have been eagerly awaiting the title since it was first shown all the way back at the 2008 Independent Games Festival.

So the question on everyone's mind is, was it worth the wait? Based on the hook of the initial perspective-shifting puzzle mechanic, the completely unexpected, game-changing layers of depth Fez hides, and an enthralling soundtrack to set the mood, this is one trip down the rabbit hole every puzzle fan should take.

On its surface the game provides a rather simple premise. You are Gomez. You have a big head, a drum set in your bedroom, and a happy 8-bit existence in a two-dimensional world. Your village-mates are likewise content, their greetings to you as simple as their flat living space. But then an eye-patched individual leads you to witness the coming of a giant cube, which changes everything. Suddenly you are given the power to see your world in three dimensions and must use your newfound powers to hunt down all the cubes and anti-cubes thrown about the world.

Fez's gameplay is that of a 2D platformer. There are no enemies to speak of, and should you fall off a cliff or from too high up, you are simply resurrected on the last stable floor you occupied. Since there is absolutely no consequence for failure, the game is all about exploration. It really gives you the confidence to experiment and find all the little nooks and crannies layered throughout the different environments.

The perspective changing mechanic lets you rotate the camera 90 degrees at a time left or right of where Gomez is standing. You occupy a three-dimensional landscape, but you only see one side of it at a time, and you're always forced into the foreground of the particular side you're on. This allows for some devilish platforming tricks as you break the laws of physics traversing each area. It's a bit like Super Paper Mario or Crush except instead of shifting into the world, you're merely rotating your view around the perimeter.

Once you start to wrap your head around how the world works, the trick becomes meticulously opening every door you see and reaching every cube piece you find. The more cube pieces you find, the more doors you can open. It's a mind-boggling exercise that, like the best puzzlers tend to do, makes you constantly marvel at not only how clever the solutions are, but how smart you must be for figuring them out.

With all the perspective shifting and door hunting, you might be thinking that finding your way around the world would get confusing. And you'd be right.

Keeping track of which doors you've been in and where they take you is arguably the most frustrating thing about Fez. There's a map, but it's more form than function. It shows you an abstract layout of every room and its position relative to all the others, but does a poor job of showing you how to get from one room to the next. Thankfully, the map does have a system for keeping track of what treasures and secrets you've unlocked in each room. This is a godsend in the later hours; you'll be doing a lot of backtracking to solve puzzles you didn't have the knowledge or tools to make sense of the first time through.

If this were all there was to Fez, it might be enough for most gamers. But for those who seek more, and are willing to work hard to peel back its layers, let it be known that the perspective shifting is only the most basic level of intricacy to be found here.

You'll see many things throughout your travels that won't make sense to you, or even register as something to pay attention to, until much later in the game. Once you do collect your first 32 cubes, complete your first playthrough, and start the New Game+ in an effort to collect the remaining 32, a whole new twist is revealed. Combined with the revelation of what the real puzzles actually are, pretty much everything changes.

I'm hesitant to speak too freely about them; it's not just one mechanic, and even after you know the true rules of the game, it still takes some real thinking to parse out the solutions. One could simply take a trip online and have it all spelled out, but to do so would be doing yourself a great disservice. Suffice it to say, it's a powerful, mind-blowing moment when you first start to solve the more complex rooms, and it's a total head-trip how abstract and obscure things get. Stylistically, it's very much akin to when you first plugged your controller into port 2 to beat Psycho Mantis in Metal Gear Solid.

Accompanying all this brain-melting madness is a soundtrack that is perfectly suited to the task you have laid out before you. Consisting of simple, ambient electronic pieces, it evokes a sense that there's more going on beneath the surface. It really reflects the core of what this game is truly about. From a relatively light-hearted beach melody, to a mysterious and melancholy forest lullaby, to an ominous and haunting graveyard theme, each song is tailored to the different environment it accompanies. One theme running through all of the tracks, though, is a feeling of isolation and loneliness. It's beautifully eerie and constantly reminds that not only are you alone, but there are many hidden secrets out there to uncover.

Unfortunately, Fez is not without its share of technical issues. I encountered several instances of shifting outside the boundaries of a room. From what I could tell, this was more the result of perspective shifting during a jump or some other movement, which forced Gomez outside the boundaries of the room. It was never game-breaking for me; he would always end up popping back into the room pretty much on his own.

The really pernicious problem I encountered was a serious case of framerate dips and stuttering when shifting from room to room. Load times between rooms seemed to get increasingly longer, and during camera pans between island environments the framerate would drop so low the entire screen would flicker briefly as it struggled to refresh the environment. There was even one particularly seizure-inducing room toward the end of the game where it clearly couldn't keep up with itself, and the engine chugged through the entire area. The problem cropped up more frequently the further I got. It really made the late game backtracking a tedious affair. The obtuse map geometry and complicated web of nesting doors only made these issues more glaring.

Despite the difficult navigation and framerate issues, Fez is a puzzle-platformer of the best kind. The fact that its most clever elements were not shown in any trailer, talked about at any press event, or even known to anyone until its release is completely crazy by itself. It's not only a testament to the strength of its most basic mechanic, but adds to the intrigue and mystery once you hit that moment where you're completely stuck, trying to decide if you simply don't have the tools to progress or if you just need to keep staring at the screen until you figure it out.

At 800 Microsoft space dollars instead of the increasingly standard 1200, Fez is a bargain. The framerate issues keep it from reaching perfection, but the multiple layers of depth for those who seek them out and a musical score worthy of listening to a la carte make this another must-have indie puzzler. Put on your fez and prepare to have your brain split in half.