This review originally appeared in E105, Christmas 2001.
To describe Rez as an old school 3D shoot ’em up is a bit like describing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as boy meets girl. It’s essentially correct, but fundamentally missing the point. The underlying mechanics are indeed those that have been refined by the likes of Space Harrier and Panzer Dragoon: defend yourself from wave after wave of attackers before the destruction of a boss enables you to progress to the next stage. But Rez is so much more than this. Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s unique synaesthetic vision has engineered an artefact that exhibits a cultural relevance far beyond the ordinary confines of the videogame medium – yet which is also hugely enjoyable to play.
Even judged by the well-worn 3D shoot ’em up formula, Rez is immaculate. Taking place inside an unspecified cyberspace, it’s the player’s task to break through a series of firewalls and save the central AI, Eden, from a virus. Consisting largely of five stages, the game boasts a targeting system that enables you to lock onto multiple adversaries, as well as an overdrive counter that, although limited in number of uses, facilitates the destruction of everything on screen.
Instead of lives, there are seven distinct phases of evolution, with each new mutation activated by collecting power-ups. Receive a single hit, however, and you drop a step back down the evolutionary ladder. Every stage boasts varied attack patterns, a diverse range of foes and some of the most brilliantly conceived end-of-level bosses ever – from the lotus leaf/combination lock fusion of the Mars Giga to the epic transformation of the Uranus Giga into a colossal, running man.
The real joy of Rez, though, is in its inimitable amalgamation of sound, vision, action and disembodied narrative. Despite the familiarity of the game mechanics, it’s a thrillingly revelatory experience; at once both intellectually edifying and viscerally entertaining. In its appreciation of 3D space and in the way themes of evolution and transcendence are intertwined with, and layered on top of, exhilarating abstract soundscapes, Rez is a work of genius. And featuring exclusive tunes from the likes of Japanese combo Joujouka and trancemaster Ken Ishii, seamlessly integrated with the action, it’s a collaborative effort, too. Adam Freeland’s ‘Fear’, in particular, provides a harmoniously epic milieu for the final stage of the game, shortly before the HAL-like disintegration of the corrupted Eden which prefaces the endgame sequence.
Quite apart from the evident artistry that has gone into the making of this game, the developer has also put an enormous effort into making sure that it’s as comprehensive as it is beautiful. Thanks to a finely balanced suite of unlockable extras, the game rewards repeated and varied play. Trance modes, and Travelling modes are the digital equivalent of a chill-out room, enabling you to play the game with impunity, while a Score Attack mode rewards extravagant risks with high scoring combo multipliers and a consequent adrenaline rush.
It’s a shame that the Dreamcast version seems slightly sluggish compared to the PlayStation2 incarnation, but really the differences between the two are cosmetic. Indeed, it’s tempting to think that were he alive today, and given a suitable intellectual climate, Kandinsky, to whom the game is dedicated, would have been proud to have worked on either version. Certainly, one of the defining achievements of Rez is that although it is a creation with a demonstrable cultural significance, it draws lovingly and resolutely from the videogame canon.
Proof, then that videogames are art? Perhaps. A staggeringly enjoyable experience? Certainly.