Game Review: Fez

Fez is a Famous Indie Game, and I bought ages ago during a sale and never played it. My current medical leave has given me a chance to catch up a bit, and I've finally played it.

In my limited indie gaming vocabulary, I see elements of Undertale, The Witness and Monument Valley. It has the meta elements of Undertale, it has the layers of puzzles of The Witness, and it has the perspective puzzles of Monument Valley. In all cases, though I think it is a weaker game than those I'm comparing it with.

On the surface, the closest comparison is with Monument Valley. Fez's vocabulary of puzzles is far more limited than that of Monument Valley, making that part of Fez a somewhat simple and even unsatisfying puzzle platformer, despite the neat rotation mechanic, and cutesy graphics and sound.

However, Fez is two games in one. It's superficially a simple platformer, bright and friendly and easy. However, there's also a second level, of cryptographic-style puzzles. That level is... internet aware. Some of these puzzles are just horrible, because they're a challenge for the whole audience, not just you, and I guess spoilers are available if you want to complete the unreasonable puzzles?

I don't like this. I want a game that is a reasonable personal challenge to me, not a paean to internet sleuthing. The way these levels are mixed together is also jarring. There will be levels and puzzles that you have no chance of solving when you first see them, but this is not obvious when you encounter them, so you end up wasting time before realising you need to give up for now. This is particularly frustrating when the cutesy platformer puzzles are mixed with the secondary puzzles. Compare this to The Witness, where the layering is distinct and structured and... very playable. Discoveries there are enjoyable and surprising, not annoying and disappointing.

I think the epitome of this, including the frankly lazy cross-platform translation, are the tuning fork puzzles. I'm going to spoil them, and I don't care because they're rubbish. On the XBox (?) you'd see a tuning fork, and you'd get a left-right haptic sequence on your controller that you'd parrot back to unlock a secret. On the Mac, this has been translated to a left-right sequence of sounds. Which is completely non-obvious unless you're wearing headphones. The stereo effect on the built-in speakers is... just not there. A painfully obvious puzzle becomes obscure, simply through carelessness.

It's a wilfully annoying game. The clock puzzle makes that abundantly clear. It's a challenge to the players, but more in terms of what they'll put up with in the name of games, rather than in terms of an enjoyable gaming experience. Perhaps this is art, challenging preconceived notions of what a game is, but I'd prefer something enjoyable and engaging.

Posted 2021-06-15.