Fez review: Living in spin

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3, Win, Mac, Linux, PS Vita, iOS, PS4
Publisher Microsoft Studios
Developer Polytron
Release Date Apr 13, 2012

Fez is less 8-bit nostalgia trip, and more post-traumatic stress disorder.

Fez, the long-delayed, oft-discussed title from Polytron and creator Phil Fish, is finally here on Xbox Live Arcade, about four years since it took root as the underdog darling of the indie game scene with its fez-wearing hero and 8-bit charm.

But it's 2012. The 8-bit nostalgia craze has been milked for all its worth in game after game. And other titles have already explored the 2D-to-3D, optical illusion platformer mechanic that made Fez seem so clever previously. What ground could there be left to tread?

It turns out that Fish and Polytron have taken a darker trip down memory lane than their contemporaries' NES-inspired field trips. Fez isn't the 8-bit nostalgia it appears to be. Fez is just as much 8-bit post-traumatic stress disorder.


Fez sees main character Gomez entrusted with a magic hat and a terrifying mission: to explore a new dimension and save his universe from tearing itself apart. Right away, Fez is mining familiar memories — the hero who starts the game sleeping in his peaceful village and the implication that Gomez is just a little different from the rest of his tribe. The pixelated look is familiar, the music is a chiptune throwback (though an admittedly fantastic one) — everything is so retro it hurts.

Initially, this familiarity is a little much. Fez starts out so much like the games it references, games from an era referenced so frequently over the last four years, that it feels thin on its own identity. Pixel art is fun, and lo-fi MIDI music has a certain appeal, but it's lost a lot of its power to trigger nostalgia. Yet Fez, perhaps more than any other game I can remember, carefully picks up the tools of '80s-era NES titles and deftly employs them to build something unique.

Where other nouveau-retro games pay their respects to the Marios, Zeldas, and Dragon Warriors that many of us in our 30s grew up with, Polytron has its eyes on a different tier of game with Fez — games like Faxanadu and Castlevania 2. Hard games. The games you would walk away from for days or weeks (or, in my case with Castlevania 2, at least a year), like an excavation at an insurmountable impasse.

Like some of the more obscure, whispered-about titles of the 8-bit era, Gomez's journey in Fez is like exploring the ruins of a dead alien civilization. Every new color in Fez's limited palette, every new environment, is a new mystery communicated in a language that you'll have to learn for yourself.

Sometimes, this is literal — there's a language on walls and other surfaces that I'm all but positive is actually decipherable if you have the time and wherewithal to figure it out (sadly, I had neither). But more often, it's the language of mechanics. Fez references an era where games didn't have the capability to tell you exactly what they wanted from you, or the visual fidelity to show you. That ghost in the machine is gone. In its place, Fez continually presents you with clues of varying complexity about what you'll need to do to make ... something, anything, happen.

Fez takes this farther than the 2D plane that limited the games it references. Gomez's magic hat lets you rotate his world left or right, revealing reality to be built on the four horizontal-facing surfaces of a cube, and operating with optical-illusion-as-law — if you can align the world to appear traversable, it is. This mechanic isn't new, but Fez's puzzles don't stop at perspective. Instead, Fez forces players to shift planes to interact with objects in various ways for a single element of a puzzle, leading to sweeping, multifaceted solutions.


But it's the more subtle clues that can drive you to madness. For example, while Fez uses controller vibration to indicate impact and movement like other games, it might be hours before you realize that vibration is used for something else, and even longer before you understand what the hell Fez is trying to tell you with it.

(No, I'm not going to tell you what it means, either.)

You may very well make it to the conclusion without seeing enormous chunks of Fez, the game seemingly content to let you find them or not. And if you do find them, there's no guarantee you'll know what you have. I found two (of four) artifacts in Fez, and never used them once, or even figured out what they do.

Loath as I am to use the word, there's a certain genius to Fez

Amid all of that, there is platforming in Fez. It works. It functions. But the perspective rotation platformer has been done more elegantly elsewhere in games like Echochrome, and once I understood that there were multiple levels of information being communicated to me, that's really all I cared about anymore.

I appreciate that Fez errs on the side of facilitation rather than punishment with regard to skill-based gameplay. Jumps between platforms are forgiving enough, and falling to your "death" (just about the only thing that can kill you in Fez) simply brings you back to life on the last safe platform you touched, ready to try again. And later, quick timing becomes necessary to progress through the perspective puzzles, but Fez is so busy Miyagi-ing you in the ways its world works and your own capabilities in it that you might not realize it was happening.

Loath as I am to use the word, there's a certain genius to Fez, to the point where I wasn't even sure if the technical issues I was encountering — frequent stutters during level transitions, major frame rate hits in isolated areas that made platforming frustrating — were intentional or not, given events early in the game. Other reviewers I spoke with had more serious stability problems, including system hard-locks or the game kicking back to the Xbox 360 dashboard, and I still couldn't speak with certainty as to whether it was entirely accidental.

Wrap Up:


Fez is the most authentic exploration of the NES era of games that I've ever played, from its sound and visuals to its obtuseness. It uses the capabilities of current systems to take those ideas further, while limiting itself with specific intentions, deploying scrutability in bits and pieces. It doesn't just love the games it borrows from — it understands them. It knows what it is and what it wants to be, and doesn't compromise on it. And for those willing to bury themselves in Fez's alien world and logic, there are plenty of treasures to be found.

Fez was reviewed using code provided by Microsoft. You can read more about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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