Monday, 16 April 2012


Oh yes, this exists.

There was once a time where Fez was fresh. That was five years ago. But fear not, for recently Polytron's party piece has finally been made available on Xbox Live Arcade. But the question is, do we still care?

The term would be "fashionably late" were Fez still fashionable. Truth be told it's a bit difficult to be ecstatic over this game in 2012 - it had an innovative idea half a decade ago, but during its many years of development hell, others have had similar ideas, and sometimes better ones. Today Fez lacks the impact it once had - its lead developer, Phil Fish, has been given too much time to talk, and the string of missed release dates means the product was never destined to live up to its hype.

When you browse over the history of Fez, it's difficult to see what the folks at Polytron have been doing all of these years. Clearly they have been coming to terms with the lesser side of video game production - the management of time and deadlines, the legal issues of bringing a game to the big leagues, and struggle with dealing with egos, but as far as the actual release goes, you can't help but question why (or how) it took this long to publish. Fez is much the same game it was in the beginning, and that's a worry, because in the beginning it was little more than an engine test.

Fez is a fairly basic platformer taking tips from Metroid and later Castlevania games, the sort where you go backwards and forwards looking for things, with the hope of unlocking new areas of the map and finding a conclusion to the story. The objective is to traverse the world looking for yellow cubes in an effort to save time and space, but what makes Fez different from the rest is the ability to change the perspective of said world. Though life is always played in two dimensions, the level can be altered by flipping along the Y-axis, revealing a third dimension. The thing about innovative mechanics is that they're often hard to describe - go check one of the many trailers and preview videos for a better idea of what's in-store.

Fez is a time consuming affair, with plenty of things to do, and plenty of nostalgia to soak up. The level design is top notch - it's easy to get lost, but at the same time, there are lots of clever tricks like secret doorways to speed up backtracking, and a tons of hidden rooms and novelties. It's also a lovely looking game sporting a brilliant soundtrack - Fez does a lot of things right from the get-go.

But the game has problems, mostly to do with age, and to understand these issues in full, we need to analyse the events of the last five years. Fez pre-dates a significant amount of innovative releases in the video game industry, such as for example, Echochrome on the PlayStation Portable, also keen to screw with perspectives, and Super Paper Mario, which also liked to leave the boundaries of 2D once in a while. There's also at least two freebie Fez clones which found their way online in the intervening years - Fez's concepts aren't that new anymore.

Fez was also once a pioneer of "retro" games, sporting pixelated graphics and NES-like sounds - the kind which are now very much mainstream in the form of Bit-trips and VVVVVVs. Predictably, as more children of the 80s make it up the career ladder, experiences like these becomes ever more common, and though I would still credit 2004's Cave Story as the architect of the movement, Fez was one of the first "major" titles join the group.

The five year delay gives us the impression that Fez is now following the pack, when in reality it was once leading it. The problem is, Fez doesn't appear to have made any significant effort to try and regain its title - the graphics and audio have improved and more levels have been built, but from a programming perspective things are still the same as they were several years ago.

There isn't anything in Fez which can kill you - it's a massive collect-a-thon, and gameplay is reduced to just running and jumping, occasionally picking things up and throwing them. Arguably it matches the retro motif, but without any threats at all there is no real challenge to Fez. No real test of skill, just a test of patience as you navigate the large worlds and occasionally solve tricky puzzles. And inevitably those puzzles will become too hard to solve and you'll grow tired of the whole affair.

Fez is very slow in comparison to most of its competition, and I suspect many will have expected much more. There's an overwhelming feeling of "is that's it?" in the air and it never really goes away. However, the introduction is amazing, and Fez often shows signs of brilliance. There's tons of replay value to be had here and it's certainly an artistic masterpiece, but the unavoidable conclusion is that it fails to demonstrate five years of progress. Minus a few aesthetic changes, it is much the same game as it appeared to be a year ago - the delay seems excessive.

I'm highly sceptical of the 90 it currently holds at Metacritic as there isn't a whole lot to see. There's also some really odd design choices mixed in, such as black holes which can appear randomly to litter a level to create further hazards. If you move to a different location and then go back, often those black holes disappear, raising the very important question as to why they need to exist in the first place. I've also encountered various rendering problems and there's horror stories of corrupt saves - it's not as if they haven't had time to test things, yet it feels untested.

I also don't care much for the map screen. In fact, much of this game still feels unfinished, and though we can safely assume there were problems in the transition between no-budget indie PC game to bigger budget Xbox one, I still fail to understand why we have silly problems like this at all. Why is the frame rate allowed to drop on occasion?

Overall I can't say Fez is a bad game. Supposedly there's patch on its way to iron out some of the flaws (which is good news), but still a disappointing release for those who have been waiting. Still, much can be learned here, and it's well worth a look if you're a fan of these things.

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