Ah, Fez. Fez Fez Fez. An enigma wrapped in a mystery inside a little Moroccan felt hat. The riddles contained within this intriguing little XBLA title could well be debated for years to come, but if that seems like a presumptuous and somewhat overwhelming statement, let me break it down to a more manageable one.
On the face of it, Fez is a charmingly retro platformer in the requisite 8-bit style which follows our large-headed hero Gomez, propelled from his quiet nondescript flat hometown on a journey into the unknown. Along the way Gomez is granted the dimension-warping titular headwear, which bestows the ability to change perspective, thus bringing previously hidden areas into view and aligning platforms into more traversable configurations. The main focus of the game is exploration; be warned there are many rooms and areas to discover in the great wide pixelated world as you hunt down the cubes & cube-bits which will save the world in some sketchily defined way. There are no enemies to speak of; the lovingly animated flora & fauna you meet along your way will not obstruct you, and upon any missteps you end up miraculously back from where you fell. Indeed, the only obstacle to overcome is your own mental incompetence, ranging from simple 'how do I get up there?!' quandaries to mind-melting logic games between you and one of the aforementioned coveted cubes.
Despite its deliberate dated graphic style, the world of Fez is remarkably coherent and unique, from the amusingly self-aware chit-chat of the villagers to the absolutely blissful soundtrack by chiptune artist extraordinaire Rich Vreeland aka Disasterpeace. However, as I found to my surprise, there is a lot more to Fez than meets the eye. I won't post any spoilers here, but while you can get through the bulk of the game without too much taxing the grey matter, if you're the sort who strives for 100% completion (or in this case, 209.4% - don't ask), and aren't the sort who consorts with GameFAQs to illicitly jump a few hurdles, then you are in for many long nights in front of the TV, ending up with possibly less hair than when you started. There is absolutely no hand-holding here, beyond an initial description of the controls from your floating hypercube companion Dot. The game leaves you to it, to uncover its secrets, or not. Little sketches and doodles on the walls which I had initially dismissed as being pretty window-dressing later turned out to be massively important. The possibly disproportionate level of excitement I experienced when I found a QR code in a room, which, when scanned, revealed yet another code was tangible.
The game is a joy to play and very much evokes the wonderful sense of exploration that I recall from the early Zelda and Pokemon titles. In many ways, like previous indie darling Braid before it, the game is a love letter to that era of games gone by; the method of play is fresh and the central mechanic is (mostly) original, but throughout you will find little references you can't help but smile at in recognition. The camera twirls round the thumpingly big treasure chests as you open them; the lo-fi fanfare and expression of pure joy on little Gomez's face when each cube is completed can't help but make you a little joyous too. The game world can seem large and labyrinthine at times, but you're never too far from a warp gate which will take you close to where you need to go. The map screen can be rotated just like the levels themselves, and while it is aesthetically pleasing as an effect, it can be slightly problematic plotting your way back to a previous area.
It's possible that 8-bit nostalgia has overstayed its welcome of late, with it being a seemingly easy card for new indie titles to play, but even if you're of this opinion I would still urge you to check out this game; the presentation is not a gimmick but arguably essential to the central premise. Apparently Fez was five years in the making and it shows - each new zone you enter is exquisitely detailed, and I guarantee you'll find yourself taking the first few minutes just drinking it in with your eyes.
I could spend a lot more time discussing the ingenious puzzles contained within, but I wouldn't dream of spoiling it for you. You just can't beat that feeling of revelation upon working out the solution after thoroughly grinding your cogs, and it's a feeling that is in short supply in the current market of cookie-cutter FPSs and extended coddling tutorials. This is a harsh but welcoming reminder of the days before the internet, when you were really on your own and had no recourse but to quiz your friends on how to get past 'that bit'. Well, either that or call one of those gaming hotlines, or if you were very lucky, ask Gamesmaster.
Fez is not without flaws and can be a little bit buggy now and again (although I've read that most glitches occur when trying to run it with a USB stick attached), but on the whole I have the utmost praise for it. There have been a few who have slighted it for being too head-bangingly difficult, but I can safely say I had a grand old time playing it and didn't come close to solving it all. I have no problems attributing that to a failure not of the game, but my own intellect. It seems lazy to make the Braid comparison again, but you have to applaud a game which pulls no punches in defiance, or perhaps apathy of the 'run down corridor, shoot things' Call Of Duty generation. At 800 MSP, this is a labour of love punching well above its price point, if your synapses can take it.
One more shout-out for the soundtrack by Disasterpeace, it really lends the world a sense of solidity, and which I liked so much I paid tribute to it myself. Here is me playing a song from Fez, wearing... well you'll see.
Time to put on your thinking cap.