Fez blends 2D and 3D spaces at will, strings a series of otherworldly puzzles across dainty hovering islands and delivers a pastels-and-pixels visual style that manages to feel voguish as well as sweetly nostalgic. Its greatest achievement, however, lies far beyond all that. Polytron’s long-delayed debut serves as a lavish reminder that, even after four decades of ceaseless iteration, videogames can still be mysterious.
The chunky art might reference the glory years of 16bit consoles – that’s until you turn your first corner, of course – but Fez’s playful approach to design invokes the tricksterish temperaments of older games such as Jet Set Willy and Exile. This is a throwback to those idiosyncratic, often quietly bewildering titles made by a tiny group of designers and programmers, all going mad together in close quarters. It’s a return to the days when nothing was too esoteric for inclusion, and there was no better use of production time than stuffing an entire campaign with in-jokes, secret rooms, codes, and hidden challenges.
This is a game of asides, then, filled with doorways that hide during the day and suddenly appear at sunset, floating platforms that only become visible when lightning strikes in the background and mysterious chambers in which a single exit may lead to more than one location. An initial playthrough will most likely leave you with questions rather than answers, and for every puzzle you manage to solve, two or three will live on to haunt your waking and sleeping mind.
What brings these wayward elements into alignment, though, is that they all orbit a single idea – an idea that ensures that, wild as it is with the detailing, Fez is enviably coherent where it counts. Polytron’s platformer takes place across a 2D world made up of floating spars of land, and it enables players to horizontally rotate the environment in 3D space whenever they want. It’s not a blend or a trick or a half-way fudging; Fez offers the spectacle of a 2D game and a 3D game living separate lives inside the same geometry and, at times, you’re actively encouraged to think of the design’s various pieces in isolation. It means that the game’s stages are essentially four slightly different interlocking locations wrapped around a central column, with every surface housing its own handful of secrets. It also means that every one of the environments you explore can play a neat range of cognitive tricks on you as you pick a hesitant path from A to B.
It’s a complex premise, perhaps, but it never feels that way, as each squeeze of the trigger neatly spins the screen exactly 90 degrees to the left or right. Turning a corner might have you stumbling across a hidden door tucked behind a wall or a waterfall, but it could just as easily see you yanked across the sky on a floating scrap of turf that – oops – isn’t actually connected to the rest of the environment. This is a landscape in which perspective means everything. If your current orientation provides a straight line between two points, you can cross it, meaning you can use those 90 degree turns to bridge impossible gaps, say, or stitch fragmented ladders together. Later on, you can even employ your rotating viewpoint as a tool to tighten screws, arrange loose scatterings of rusting metal plates into a broad, unbroken road and switch a travelling platform between right-angled tracks, keeping it in motion. Fez’s geometry is the geometry of dreams, certainly – it’s lucid and artful, yet bold with its transgressions into the impossible – but that only ensures that the lithe, childish logic that drives everything doesn’t take too much getting used to.
The adventure hinges on a kind of smart spatial conjuring that games have played with before, of course – in the stark, design school minimalism of Echochrome, for instance, and the paranoid puzzle-platforming of Crush. Fez’s approach to the subject feels far less self-conscious than either Sony’s or Zoë Mode’s, however, and the end result seems more harmonious too. Polytron repeatedly offsets the cold brilliance of the concept with sweet pixellated wildlife and cute one-liners, and it never lets the cleverness of the individual set pieces erode the playfulness at their core.
It presents an unexpectedly rich and varied selection of these toys, too, from huge forests full of knotholes and dozing monkeys, where you must leap between branches, squeezing the trigger and realigning your perspective to land each jump, to vast libraries where golden orreries are stacked on mahogany bookshelves, or hovering factories, with pistons that send you blasting through the clouds. Lighthouses, water towers, neon-lit alleyways: none of the stops on Fez’s itinerary is particularly inventive, necessarily – just as in among its travelling arsenal you’ll find bombs, crumbling platforms and crates to hold down switches. But they’re folded in on themselves with lively intricacy, and their darkest corners are home to tiny, arresting details that stick in the mind and hint at some kind of grand order.
Fez is far too proud a game to reserve its brilliant rotating camera gimmick only for sections in which you’re exploring outside, and some of the adventures’ best puzzles take place indoors in a series of snug, rather cluttered chambers. It’s here that Polytron gets really sneaky with perspective, hiding crucial trinkets behind the fourth wall, or blocking your view with well-placed furniture. These more intimate settings also help you to pick up a feel for the world of Fez as you shuffle through school rooms with apples left on the teacher’s desk, or peek behind the crimson drapes that frame an ancient stone throne.
Like Super Mario, Fez is the kind of game that will try anything once. Many of its standout sequences revolve around simple ideas taken to extremes: a mine where you have to rotate the screen at just the right moment to keep an explosive charge travelling along a wall, or a crypt that takes the form of a hollow cube studded with dozens of identical interconnected doors. Look down and see grinning snails and caterpillars inching along the ground. Look up, and spot seagulls staring into the distance and complex starscapes packed with tetromino constellations. The day and night cycle revels in rosy dawns and smoky dusks right out of a Treasure title, while Disasterpeace’s mesmerising quasi-chiptune soundtrack suggests Holst’s back catalogue put through a Mega Drive. So many elements, and they all come together with an unexpected clarity; Fez feels like a place, a place built from gaming’s history.
Of course, it would all be undermined if the platforming didn’t work, or if the breadcrumb trail of collectables suddenly lost its appeal, abandoning you somewhere in the tangled depths of this non-linear playground. Luckily, your doughy avatar feels both substantial and precise when he moves, behaving beautifully even in the twitchier challenges that make up the game’s last few areas. Meanwhile those scattered cubes, along with a hovering companion, lead your eyes across Fez’s more complex environments so stealthily that you may not actually notice their guidance.
Don’t mistake such sneaky orientation for handholding, though. If anything, Polytron can be unexpectedly fierce in the demands it makes of players, mostly because – like a good Mario game – it offers so many things to do that it’s easy to get waylaid. Tracking your progress through this fragmented landscape initially seems completely impossible, in fact, but the designers have taken pains to offer quiet assistance where it’s most needed. For starters, the game’s 3D map is not actually as clumsy as it first seems: it highlights unexplored areas and missing trinkets with clarity, even if it remains a little less precise about specific entrances and exits than it might be. Each opened doorway, meanwhile, provides a picture-in-picture preview of the location that lies immediately beyond it, minimising false starts when navigating some of the busier hubs.
It’s this inherent tidiness that enables Fez to be creative without any of the usual clutter, and ensures its campaign is as dextrous when it comes to sidestepping frustrations as it is when springing a surprise. The environments may hide QR ideograms, secret collectables and lengthy codes written in Alexey Pajitnov’s handwriting – but as you sound out the trickiest corners of each map, there’s no death waiting for you if you misjudge a leap, just an instant teleport to the nearest ledge and a chance to try it all again. There are no upgrades, either, unless you’re counting those that unlock inside your own brain as you tease out the game’s mischievous rules, no enemies to avoid and no punch to slot in alongside your jump. Instead, Fez offers pure, uninterrupted exploration: a brisk tour of a landscape by turns jaunty, melancholic, and foreboding.
Draw lines between distant landmarks; forge connections that reveal the logic of a set piece; untangle the story in short, gleeful bursts. The route you pick through Polytron’s floating world is nearly impossible to verbalise, while its puzzles resolve themselves in your mind unexpectedly, in clear, wordless chunks. There’s really no language to cover many of the things you get up to in Fez. For a videogame in 2012, that may be the ultimate endorsement.