First appearances can be mighty deceiving. Fez starts as a simple platformer in a brightly colored world. Within minutes, you don a magical hat that lets you rotate the world on its axis, revealing hidden doors and linking previously unconnected paths. A shift in perspective is just the beginning of Fez's quest to make you view the world in unexpected ways. There are mysteries buried within that only the dedicated will uncover. You may spend hours tromping through the inviting locales before it dawns on you that something greater lies below the surface, and once that thread becomes untangled, you find yourself exploring with a newfound purpose. It's this marriage of styles--of a pleasant platformer mixed with a cerebral puzzler--that transforms Fez into a captivating adventure.
The universe is tearing apart at the seams. It's a premise that could lead to a feeling of foreboding doom, but Fez shakes off this dour situation by infusing the world with a serene aesthetic that beckons you onward. You play as Gomez, a huggable creature with an oddly expressive face. He has a huge job handed to him: Repairing the bindings that hold the universe together. And he accomplishes this feat by traveling to a previously unheard-of place: the third dimension.
You can rotate the world in 90-degree increments. Ledges that were so distant you couldn't possibly leap from one to the other suddenly touch once you swing the world, and this basic concept is expanded upon as you go deeper into the adventure. Springing mushrooms rush under your feet, explosions tear at the weak points of a wall, and ladders magically fuse together. It's a marvel to explore the wealth of ideas this mechanic brings to life, but its appeal is short-lived. There's the underlying feeling that the main tool you use to manipulate the world is little more than a gimmick, a simple novelty, and this thought is cemented by the sheer ease of your adventuring. It takes only a bit of trial and error to clamber to new ground. So you peacefully climb ivy-covered walls and turn cranks, enjoying the sights without ever being fully engaged.
That's not to say the platforming elements are poor. The first few hours introduce so many concepts that you don't have time to think about how simple it all feels. It's when the new ideas become commonplace that doubt creeps into your mind. Thankfully, this black cloud is kept at bay by the pristine presentation. Fez is a world you want to exist in. It begins with a crystal-clear sky, green pastures, and peaceful inhabitants that make you grin from ear to ear, but Fez wastes little time before it changes moods. Thunder crashes in a rain-soaked cemetery, scaring you even though no enemies exist in the entire game. The music complements the visual style every step of the way. From charming to frightful and even melancholy, the excellent score pushes you through a wide range of emotions.
Charming aesthetics ensure there's always something going on in the background to demand your attention. In one stage, a turtle spins on his belly like a top, flashing the shiny shell that is the envy of the reptile kingdom. Birds perch on nearby trees only to fly away when you come close. An inchworm crawls along a small ledge halfway up a towering tree. There's an ecosystem in Fez that invites curiosity. You stare at the animals and wonder if they notice the galaxy crumbling around them or if they're just content viewing your silly antics.
There's more to the background than the quiet solitude of the animals. Enter a furnace room in town, and you see pages taped to the wall. There are shapes resembling Tetris pieces alongside squares with odd patterns in their centers. Why are these here? The same question pops unprompted into your head when you enter a nearby classroom. What do these esoteric drawings mean? Happen upon a neon-lit city, and a billboard of a creature that looks remarkably like Gomez has a giant speech bubble protruding from his lips. But the words are gibberish. Is he trying to communicate or is it just decoration?
These background images could be the key to revealing every secret that exists in this world, or they could be graffiti to keep your eyes occupied while you jump around. It's hard to say what meaning they hold, so you press on. Carvings on trees and in stone columns look familiar. You've definitely seen the ancient marking that circle a bell before, but where? And what does it all mean? There are secrets in Fez that take hours to decipher. Uncover a hidden map, and stare at its obtuse markings. Is it hinting at a treasure? Or just messing with your mind? And those artifacts, they must have a purpose, but what could they possibly do?
The game does explain that secrets litter this world. When you zoom out to the world map, you see a sprawling assortment of stages that fly off into hubs and spokes that make it very difficult to get your bearings. But markings along the borders indicate what each stage holds. Cubes are the currency of progression, and there are 64 in all. But you need only 32 to reach the initial ending, and those can be obtained by the simple platforming. It's the second half--the anti-cubes--that pose the biggest challenge. You earn these by solving puzzles that don't even seem to pose a question, let alone demand an answer, and it takes all of your intuition to figure out what's being asked of you.
The obtuse puzzle layout is a detriment at times. You enter a room with nothing but a door and some water in it, and yet the map clearly indicates that a puzzle is present. So you jump into the water, rotate the screen, and maybe even utter a curse under your breath, but nothing happens. And your mind begins to wander. What sort of puzzle do I have to solve? And is it even possible to complete at this time? In Fez, you don't gain access to new abilities as you progress. Rather, you gain new knowledge. It's possible, but extremely unlikely, to pass every puzzle your first time through, and this doubt becomes a detriment to your enjoyment. Because it's not clear if you have the data to solve a puzzle, it's easy to become discouraged and frustrated.
This is compounded by the dumbfounding level layout. Dozens of stages are spread across the land and jut out at incomprehensible angles. Getting to a specific place takes far longer than it should because it's never clear where you need to go. A stage may contain a half dozen doors, and it's tedious trying to figure out the correct path. Warp points help this problem, but they're only a Band-Aid. Without quick traversal, solving the myriad problems becomes exasperating. To make matters worse, the stages don't even have names that would make identification easy. The map system is a convoluted mess that clashes with the enthralling aesthetics and adds extra burden to your puzzle solving.
But it's worth putting up with the absurd layout. There's no better feeling than when you make a breakthrough on a particularly nasty puzzle. The warm glow in your stomach makes all of your struggles seem worth it, and this delight refills your enthusiasm to see what other secrets you can uncover. The lack of hand-holding is welcome in Fez, despite the roadblocks it creates, because you feel empowered when you finally have that "Eureka!" moment. Everything you accomplish comes down to your hard work because there's little chance you'll luck into figuring out what to do. Fez is a game you will get stuck in; you will wonder where to go and if it's even possible to get every cube. It can be discouraging at times. But the respect it has for you, that you can figure things out without help, is an idea that should be embraced instead of shunned.
With dedication, you can figure out the hidden elements that make Fez such an intriguing adventure. But there's no way to avoid the punishment you receive from the technical limitations. Hard crashes are a pain you have to bear. Frequent saves ensure you don't lose progress when you're kicked out to the dashboard, but these carry an added annoyance. Autosaves make the game stutter, causing you to potentially miss a jump in the process. Other times, you (or the block you need to solve a puzzle) could glitch through the ground and into a gaping abyss. You might go hours without any technical problems surfacing, but when they do, your fun is derailed in a hurry.
Fez has pitfalls you have to accept if you're going to enjoy this adventure. Technical problems, baffling map design, and obtuse puzzles can serve as a serious barrier to entry. But it's worth putting up with the missteps for the wondrous adventure that awaits. Fez goes far deeper than the simple platformer it initially appears as, and figuring out the solutions to the many puzzles is an experience that harks back to a time when games weren't scared of taking off the leash and letting you run wild. Invest time in Fez's colorful world, and enjoy the wealth of incredible ideas buried within.