M.C. Escher With Vangelis On Keyboards

The most amazing thing about Fez is that it works at all.

By Ellie Gibson • April 17, 2012

There’s a monkey with a typewriter in my basement. So much for the Shakespeare theory; he’s been down there three years, and he’s yet to produce a single sonnet. (Although the other day, he did manage to knock out half the Legally Blonde screenplay and the opening rap from The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.)

I wonder what would happen if I swapped the typewriter for an Xbox dev kit. I don’t think he’d ever create Fez, not if he were locked up for a thousand years. And not unless he were down there with  Shigeru Miyamoto, Søren Kierkegaard, M.C. Escher, and the guy who made Jet Set Willy. With Vangelis on keyboards.

As summarized by developer Polytron, Fez is “a 2D platformer set in a 3D world.” Main character Gomez can do all the things you’d expect from a platforming hero: run, jump, climb, die, and so on. The twist is that you can rotate the four-sided worlds he explores by 90 degrees. This reveals new routes to run along, gaps to jump over, and ascents to climb.

Falling off stuff is one of only a few ways to die in Fez. There are no enemies, which is lucky, as there’s no  way to fight, either. This game is about the joy of exploration and the pleasure of discovery, and it’s a relief to be able to focus on those tasks without being shot at.

Fez village

Gomez’s mission is to gather up hundreds of yellow cubes. These have been scattered across dozens of worlds linked by doorways and warp gates. Some of the cubes and doorways are in plain sight and easy to reach,  while others require creative puzzle-solving, detective work, or jumping really fast between a load of tiles before the switch flips back.

Of course, Fez isn’t the first video game to combine a journey of exploration with the collection of small yellow objects. There’s lots more familiar stuff, from treasure chests and wooden crates to red-and-white toadstool platforms which bounce you high into the air. There are endless nods to Tetris and several Hideo Kojima-style invitations to jump over the fourth wall. The pervading sense of isolation is reminiscent of Ico, while the retro visuals take you back to a time when cutting-edge tech meant cassettes labelled “Chrome.”

Fez creator Phil Fish runs a risk by packing in so many tropes and allusions, even if they are executed with wit and charm. A game that spends too much time laughing at its own in-jokes can end up neglecting new ideas. Fez avoids falling into this trap. Even in its more indulgent moments, the game doesn’t lose track of its core concept, the folding and spindling of 3D space into a 2D envelope.

Fez waterfall at sunset

The remarkable thing about the dimension-bending in Fez is that it works. At first it feels like it shouldn’t, like it can’t, but it does. Yes, rotating right will connect those vines so you can climb all the way up there. No, rotating left won’t push you off the platform—it will reveal a door to someplace new. The feeling of possibility is thrilling, especially if you’re used to games that taunt you with ledges just a few pixels out of reach.

This sense of freedom combines with all those smart references and satisfying puzzles to make the first few hours of play an absolute joy. It helps that Gomez is a pleasure to control, with just the right amount of float to his jumps and skid to his landings. Special mention has to go to Rich Vreeland’s soundtrack, which may be the best ever musical expression of existential angst in chiptune form.

The enjoyment of exploration is punctuated by frustrating moments as the challenges get tougher. But Fez continues to engage players with delightful surprises, such as bookcases that swivel to expose secret passages and telescopes that reveal codes written in the stars.

This is a game packed with mysteries and hidden treasures. It hasn’t been designed for players who are interested in violence, flashing lights, and loud noises; there are plenty of those on the shelves already. It’s for people who just want a nice sit-down with something pleasant that will make them think. In other words, it’s a game for the old, tired, and smart.

That’s not to say you have to fall into those categories to enjoy Fez. Nor do you have to get all the references and discover all the secrets to appreciate its magic. The heart of Fez lies in the quiet thrill of solving a puzzle, finding a key, and walking through a doorway without knowing what’s on the other side.

Developer: Polytron
Publisher: Microsoft
Platform: Xbox 360 
Price: $10 (800 Microsoft Points)
Rating: E

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1,770 Responses to “M.C. Escher With Vangelis On Keyboards”

  1. OhHaiMark says:

    This game sounds like a delightful, albeit mind bending afternoon in the park. 

    It sounds like a must-buy for me. 

    • The_Asinus says:

      I’m going to tell myself that it sucks and will try my hardest to believe it (until I get my hands on a 360, anyway).

      • root (1ltc) says:

        Don’t try too hard. Just focus on this line:

        This game is about the joy of exploration and the pleasure of discovery

        You can only discover something once. Play the game on a friend’s machine or watch YT replays, and save yourself $10.

        • Girard says:

           Luckily I have more variables in my personal rubrik for determining quality than just “replay value.” (Otherwise, I’d probably never watch a movie or read a book…)

          UNluckily, I don’t have a 360, so it’s not like I’m playing this anytime soon anyway.

          (Un?)Luckily, I don’t have any goddamn time for video games right now, anyway!

        • The sheer volume of puzzles and secrets in this game actually does inspire you to replay it. When you “finish” the game, you’re rewarded with an entirely new gameplay option on the main menu, and at least two new abilities that allow you to spot and solve even MORE puzzles.

          Right now, my completion percentage is 118.8%, and the person at the top of the overall leaderboard has a completion percentage of 309.4%.

          There’s a lot to find.

        • General_Specific says:

          @root1ltc:disqus’s advice is terrible and shouldn’t be paid attention to at all.

        • root (1ltc) says:

          All I’m saying is that if you want to avoid buying the game, this review has a statement which makes that desire easy to justify.

          Just by it being a character platformer I knew that Fez isn’t something I would care about, and that statement which I quoted further corroborates my disinterest in spending $10 on it.

          If you think Fez is worth $10, great.

        • RidleyFGJ says:

          Matthew: that 300% completion is someone taking advantage of one of the game’s many glitches. The actual completion percentage is 209.4%, but there’s a way to get at least one legit anti cube to go past that, but it may not have been intentional on Polytron’s part.

        • Wha? That’s some weird, stupid logic right there.

        •  @RidleyFGJ:disqus I was wondering how such a disparity was possible. I’ve been trying to be careful where I look for hints and clues as I solve the puzzles, so I’m probably missing great swaths of spoilers and technical warnings.

          I still like the idea of a game allowing you to complete more than two times the size of the game. Or something.

        • Aaron Riccio says:

          Gilman’s making me want to get it, as it now sounds a bit like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, what with all the additional content. 

      • ShitMcFuckensteinAVC says:

        Obviously a game published by Microsoft isn’t going to go cross platform but I still have to wonder what the point is to having exclusive XBLA and PSN titles. Gears of War and Uncharted sell consoles, not Fez and Journey.

        • undomielregina says:

           I dunno about that. The reason I choose one system over another is the exclusive titles, but I also play a lot of Japanese franchises that result in being wedded to Playstation.

        • sirslud says:

          Consider that a for a game like Fez, it is difficult to secure development funding – so guess where one of the avenues for funding is. (XBLA/PSN exclusivity deals.)

          Also consider that the total of critical hit XBLA or PSN indie games on each platform certainly comes in to play when people decide which console they will buy if they only plan on getting one, thus MS and Sony have a vested interest in having them on their platform even if it’s not a single title per se that will move units.

    •  Sure is. And the New Game + adds something so unexpected and delightful I laughed out loud.

  2. RidleyFGJ says:

    I’m pretty much in the home stretch as far as everything the game has to offer, and I can’t say that I share the enthusiasm for the title as Ellie or seemingly every other reviewer have effused. It’s a shame that this is unfortunately another review that ignores the frequent technical issues in the game, since they’re a huge black mark against the title due to their frequency. And at the risk the spoilers, I won’t mention what they are specifically, but the variety of puzzle types is far, far more limited than I was expecting.

    The soundtrack is wonderful, and there is a great sense of discovery at work, even if one of the areas you come across makes a great effort at leaving you permanently brain damaged after spending more than 5 seconds in it. Given the choice between the two, and I’d take Braid over this title any day of the week. I’d even suggest that the criminally overlooked Closure that was released a few weeks ago on PSN as being a far more satisfying puzzle-platformer.

    • GhaleonQ says:

      It was damaging for me to look at the more poorly supported hyperbole for games like Journey or Fez.  That’s not because they affect my opinion of what I’m playing, I hope, but because they get me steamed about video games media.

      Can you imagine how badly they’d thrash an Igarashi or Metroid game with Fez’s incoherent map design, backtracking, and single-purpose mechanics?  Graphic adventures like Sierra’s and text adventures?  Arcane.  Fez’s cryptography and postmodern puzzle design?  Mysterious and alluring.  And the bugs!

      Still, I’m on board with you more than Ellie or her colleague Oli.   it reminds of a good PC Engine game.  It and Journey irked me for the ways I thought they’d irk me, but they had a refreshing clarity of purpose that I admire.  If mid-budget games continue to die, I have to admire that.

      • RidleyFGJ says:

        I really admire Journey for nothing else if not its incredible sense of economy. There isn’t a single aspect of that title that doesn’t serve a purpose and it engages you every step of the way. It isn’t a deep game by any stretch, but it’s proof positive that you don’t need to be in order to be engrossing and even a little bit enchanting.

    • HobbesMkii says:

       Puzzle-platformer… that’s kind of it. Why are all these indie “games as art” just Mario with a mechanic twist?

      • Girard says:

        They certainly aren’t all like that (off the top of my head, CactusSquid’s games don’t include any puzzle platformers, nor do Jason Rohrer’s with the possible exception of “Gravitation”), but the ones that are likely most accessible, and consequently get the most praise and press, are ones that couch their innovation (novelty might be a better word?) in familiar tropes.

        • HobbesMkii says:

          I’m not saying all indie game are puzzle-platformers. I’m just saying that an awful lot of the ones that the media responds to as “art” are things like Braid or Fez or Journey. Are puzzle-platformers to video games what interpersonal drama is to film and literature? Why? 

          When do I get my Bridge on the River Kwai or Paths of Glory, I guess, is what I’m asking.

        • Girard says:

           I think we’re both saying the same thing. There’s a lot more going on in art-games (or indie games or whatever) than what the media coverage would indicate.

          “Are puzzle-platformers to video games what interpersonal drama is to film and literature?”
          I think this is sort of true. Again, it comes down to accessibility. Cutesy relationship drama is what makes a movie like Amelie an “art film” for the masses who can’t be bothered to suss out more inventive or artful stuff. Mario-style platforming released on XBOX Live makes Fez an “art game” for folks who can’t be bothered to suss out more inventive or artful stuff.

          I sound dismissive of both (and admittedly am not crazy about Amelie), but they are also both works that people can credibly make arguments for the greatness of, despite their widespread popularity, I think.

        • GhaleonQ says:

          Bingo, @bakana42:disqus .  Also, there are “adult” platformers, but the public perception is certainly that they’re juvenile or based in youthful tropes.  So, any pretensions create greater distance between commercial and “art” games than they would between a commercial role-playing game and an art one.

          Naturally, I think that’s wrong, but I think that’s an important part.

      • RidleyFGJ says:

        A lot of it comes down to it being a manpower issue; indie developers do not have the luxury of the large staffs or massive budgets that established developers have at their disposal in being able to create sprawling 3D worlds and having all the bells and whistles.

        • HobbesMkii says:

           I’m not sure I buy that. TaleWorlds was literally a husband and wife team in Turkey and even early builds of Mount&Blade demonstrated it was an innovative action/combat and strategy/RPG game, well before Paradox stepped in to publish it (I bought the beta copy for cheap cheap cheap direct from them back in the day) and they were able to bring on more staff. Now, I’m not going to call M&B art, per se, but it seems to me if a young Turkish couple can produce a game on the level that I saw, someone developing in the US, Western Europe, or Japan ought to be able to be miles ahead of the curve.

      • Geoffrey Swann says:

        In addition to what others have said, I think it’s also that the 2d platformer model that Fez and Braid used is one of the most instantly recognizable and accessible game types and it’s a method of interacting with the game world that has become almost intuitive in a large audience. This makes the conceptual and mind-bending aspects of those games both easier to grasp and more novel when they work because they build on and morph that method of interacting with the game world which has become almost rote.

        This is not to say that there shouldn’t be more diversity in indie games (ever since the adventure game revival, there has been a glut of both good and bad indie adventure games).

      • Ben says:

        This isn’t just a puzzle platformer, though. There is so much more to Fez. It’s kind of insane.

    •  It’s interesting you mentioned the “limited” nature of a game like this that seems to be burgeoning with promise – the premise sounds exactly like the ‘gimmick’ in Super Paper Mario for the Wii… which was, as you imply, both thrillingly clever and maddeningly frustrating.

      SPM had some fun with it’s 2d/3d style but it fell flat in utilizing it in any complicated or exciting fashion. It made up for it by being 60% of a game making fun of gaming (there’s a date simulation, a text RPG battle, a town-mystery type level, and so on). But the other 40% is lazy, in level design and storytelling. It was the first SMB story that was truly disappointing.

      • RidleyFGJ says:

        I would say that Fez is by far a better game than Super Paper Mario, but then I think that Super Paper Mario is really shitty action RPG that doesn’t know when to shut the hell up, so that may not be coming for an entirely objective area.

        • LetoII says:

          All these years and I thought I was the only one to hate that game! I really wanted to like it, too. I really did.

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

          As someone who absolutely adores the Mario RPG games (from the SNES one to Paper Mario to Mario and Luigi) Super Paper Mario was a massive disappointment. It’s not that it was a platformer, really, because I love platformers too, it just wasn’t very fun. It didn’t have any of the best bits from Nintendo RPGs or platformers. Except for the humor, which is always awesome.

          But yeah, a huge letdown after the awesomeness that was (is!) Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. But really, how do you live up to a game with a little tropical island mob boss saying things like “I’m Don Pianta! I make cryin’ babies weep!”

      • Aaron Riccio says:

        I mean, compared to all the secrets hidden in the original Super Mario RPG, all of the subsequent SMB games have felt a little lazy (albeit still original, particular the hilarious DS ones). I don’t think that’s just the nostalgia talking, either — this was one of the first games that I beat and then had the urge to immediately start playing all over again.

  3. root (1ltc) says:

    Place your bets!

    Over/under of number of new threads appearing after this before “the question” is asked is currently: six.

  4. Raging Bear says:

    By the time Fez comes out on another platform, there’ll probably already be a sequel.

    Beret? Tam o’ Shanter?

    • LimeadeYouth says:

      Kelso. It’s just like Fez, but the goal is to locate a cleverly hidden car.

      • TwoBigMilkshakes says:

        What is this Kelso? I’ve searched for it online but found nothing.

        • LimeadeYouth says:

          It’s a bit of an obscure pop culture reference, but Fez and Kelso are both champion American Thouroughbread race horses. After Kelso was retired to stud, his owners shipped him out to Hollywood, where he is infamous for an episode of Mr. Ed where he “drove” and lost a car in the pasture. It’s one of the worst episodes of TV ever.

      • Aaron Riccio says:

        OH. And here I thought it was a game in which Kelso went about trying to secretly take naps in the hospital while avoiding the revenge-seeking janitor, the overly feel-y interns, the slap-happy surgeons, and the drone of his assistant. (It would play, I imagine, very much like Home Alone 2 on the Game Boy.)

  5. Phillip Collector says:

    So is this game destined to be mentioned in the same breath as Braid, Limbo, and Journey?

    I’ve heard mostly positive things about Fez but people don’t seem to be beaming about it in the same way they did when talking about the above mentioned games.

    • RidleyFGJ says:

      To this day, I have no idea why there’s any praise for Limbo. I thought it was an unqualified failure in every department.

      • ToddG says:

        I realize your statement pretty much speaks for itself, but if you wouldn’t mind, I’m curious to hear you elaborate, in particular about what you found distasteful about the visuals and/or the puzzle design.

        • RidleyFGJ says:

          I’ve always had a big problem with games that rely heavily on trial-and-error tactics, and Limbo is nothing if not trial-and-error. You don’t solve anything in that game so much as you eventually figure out how to not die, and I don’t find that to be compelling at all.

        • Did you not find that your understanding of how to solve the puzzles in Limbo increased as you got deeper into the game?

          I’m sorry, I just don’t understand your complaint.

        • General_Specific says:

          I stopped dying due to trial-and-error mistakes in Limbo pretty early on. Nearly all my deaths were my own fault, including because sometimes I just wanted to see what would happen.

        • peartree17 says:

          @RidleyFGJ:disqus I’m not sure I totally agree with you re: Limbo, but you do make a compelling point. That’s the exact reason I couldn’t get into Demons’ Souls, and found the love for that game (and its sequel, which I admittedly haven’t tried) so perplexing.

        • RidleyFGJ says:

          Funny enough, I think the Souls games actually handle the trial-and-error aspect far more respectfully of the player, as you’re always making progress, even if it seems like your losing it. You keep whatever items you come across, shortcuts will remain open, and the games do a good job of putting it into your head that things that look like they can kill will in fact kill you. They throw some crazy stuff at you, but I think they’re very fair.

          Limbo isn’t exactly the most unforgiving game out there, but I felt that the puzzles really weren’t strong enough to make me feel good about overcoming the constant adversity. I just wanted to move on.

        • Aaron Riccio says:

          I’m torn between agreeing with Ridley and Gilman; yes, Limbo succeeded in making me so paranoid about each step and jump that I “learned” from my mistakes and got “better” in all instances where it was possible, so kudos to it for that. 

          And yet, most games (not just Dark/Demon’s Souls) go about doing this exact same thing — teaching you skills through death and repetition — until you get good enough to avoid those mistakes. So there’s a valid point in wondering exactly *what* made everybody gush so much over Limbo; the minimal story/aesthetic wasn’t exactly groundbreaking… it’s what indie games do. (Can we keep referencing “The Company of Myself”?)

  6. Brett B says:

    I don’t think it’s been mentioned enough by reviewers just how incredibly hard the vast majority of the puzzles are. I’m almost 100% done with the game (you can go well above that, but still), and I think I’ve only solved about 5 puzzles. I’m finding it to be more frustrating than it is fun, at this point.

    • markiej says:

      I agree about the puzzles.  I’ve played a few hours and only think I’ve legitimately solved like one puzzle – and it was a dead easy one too.  It seems as though the solutions to some of the puzzles are in deciphering some pretty sparse maps or “heiroglyphs” and Im just not into that.  Especially when you’re often rewarded by popping into a random, easy-to-access doorway  – which will teleport you to a new hub.

      I do enjoy the central mechanic and the overall vibe of the game. 

      What I don’t get is why this game with super-primative graphics is so stuttery, on a system which can handle witcher 2 with less frame drops.

      • ElDan_says_Fuck_Disqus says:

        Oh, good, I was afraid there was something wrong with my XBOX. Yeah, it is weird that it seems to have framerate issues even though it’s one of the more visually simple games i’ve played in a long time.

      • Visually simple does not mean graphically simple. Similar to Minecraft – the overall visual style hides the fact that there are many polygons and layers on screen. Also due to the small team sizes I would imagine this game doesn’t have the super-optimization that big budget games have.

  7. Geoffrey Swann says:

    Thank you so much for not feeling the need to cram a letter or number grade onto your review, Ellie. It’s refreshing to read a review that doesn’t attempt to oversimplify the reaction to a game into one little tidbit that is all anyone will ever remember after reading the review. As useful as they can be, and as ubiquitous as they are, I find them more often distracting than informative.

    It also seems appropriate for a game as unique and contemplative as Fez.

    • LetoII says:

      I am also psyched that the only review is the review itself. Will this be the norm with the Gameological Society? I really hope so. I never noticed how much a grade or a number affects my interest in a game until I forced myself to ignore them. I find myself way more curious about a game when I don’t pay attention to the 8.9 or whatever. I think it’s a good thing for gamers and game developers. The same could be said about grading for all other art/media (although I’m not denying that it is fun to grade things).

      • HobbesMkii says:

        Down in the comments on this one, Teti explains the approach to reviews.

      • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

        Yeah, I like that this site doesn’t give out numbers or letter grades to everything. That’s almost always total bullshit. I will, however, miss the fanboy rage comments when a big AAA game gets anything below an 8.64 or whatever the threshold is. That always makes my day.

  8. caspiancomic says:

    Woah damn, there’s a surprisingly high amount of negativity in the comments here. Not that I’ll be playing it personally any time soon (PS3/Wii owner here) but I thought this game was really highly anticipated and gearing up for a positive reception. Weird. Oh well, if I ever get a chance, I’ll probably try it out anyway- I’ve always been of the opinion that even if something is generally bad (or has a mixed reception), as long as it has at least one new or interesting idea, it’s probably worth experiencing.

    Also, what’s with the whole monkeys/typewriters thing? So like, a monkey with an XBox dev kit… couldn’t make this game? So it’s good, generally speaking? Like, the game is better than whatever game a monkey would make? Is this some sort of super clever joke I’m missing here? I’m feelin’ kinda dumb.

    • RidleyFGJ says:

      If you saw even half the shit that gets put up on Indie Games, a monkey with access to XNA software would insulting to the monkey.

      There are some awesome games on XBLIG, but there’s a whole lot of shit to wade through to get to them.

      • markiej says:

        Agree entirely.  You can’t hope to find anything decent on XBLIG without research.  In fact, there’s a site out there dedicated to Indie game where the reviewer hates every game.  It’s kind of comical. 

        Me?  I quite enjoy a bunch of them – and for a buck, if I don’t play it a ton after buying it, no big loss.

        – maed a gaame with zombies (or however the christ it’s spelled)
        – Cthulu saves the world
        – Super Ninja something or other
        – Avatar Grand Prix 2 (4-player split screen kart game that my kids and I play a bunch)
        – laser cat

        There are others, but those jump out at me.

        • LetoII says:

          I think Miner Dig Deep is the best dollar I’ve ever spent in my life. I can’t believe how many hours I’ve gotten out of that single dollar. Just incredible. 

        • Aaron Riccio says:

          But isn’t that part of what sites like these (and commentators like you) are for?

  9. manobon says:

    Unless Microsoft has exclusive publishing rights, it Could be released on other platforms? Like PSN?  I’ll pay for a disc! ANYTHING!

    • RidleyFGJ says:

      I think that a PC version is a matter of when, not if. However, I wouldn’t get your hopes too high for a PS3 version for at least a year, as that tends to be the average length of time it takes for games like this, unless it’s a situation like Super Meat Boy, where MS locked it down hard.

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  11. I heard it was more like a puzzle game than a platformer, which kinda worries me.

    • RidleyFGJ says:

      Super Meat Boy, this game is not; you can count on one hand the number of twitch-based platforming sequences. They are at least memorable, if that helps.

  12. Knarf Black says:

    Highly recommended. The platforming is fun, if a little easy once you get the hang of the rotating mechanic, and the puzzles are outstanding. I don’t think I’ve bothered getting out a notebook while playing a game since Myst. Makes you feel like a smarty.

  13. zgberg says:

    I’m sorry, not a comment on the above review but just wanted to say: as a long time AV club member/user/commentator, this new game site blows chunks. WTF were you people thinking? Its a step backwards. At least keep the old format and make a name change but don’t revert back to mid 2000’s web-site design theory.

    I come to AV Club for honest  but not necessarily in-depth reviews. But I also have come to expect an easy to navigate format.

    Please fix this shit. THanks.