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It's unfortunate that all many people will ever know of indie platformer Fez is the controversy caused when its designer, Phil Fish, made some caustic comments about the state of Japanese gaming. While it's understandable that many will voice their opinion of Fish by shunning Fez, they'll be denying themselves an excellent gaming experience, which is a true shame. Fez wakes up your gaming brain, reminding you of how clever you can be when you challenge your perceptions and expectations.
You play as the bulbous-headed Gomez, who wears a fez now, because fezzes are cool. It also lets him change his perspective on his 2d world, rotating it 90 degrees in either direction so that he can view it from another direction. At first you'll turn corners simply to find hidden items or fully explore a particular location, but as the levels become more intricate, you'll realize that jumps impossible in one perspective are a breeze in another, or that the right series of turns will make separate bits of ledge align into one complete thoroughfare. Your goal in Fez is a classic: find enough gleaming gold cubes to open a series of locked doors. Some cubes you'll assemble bit by bit, others you'll find already complete, but tracking them down will be more of a test for your brain than your fingers. You'll do plenty of jumping and climbing as you explore the many levels of Fez, moving from one door to the next, but you'll rarely need to rely on split second timing or overly nimble fingers to accomplish your goal. There's no timer, and if you fall you're sent right back to where you were, so you're free to sit and ponder the puzzle before you, trying different approaches to see what works. The simple platforming mechanics balance really well with the brainy problem solving so Fez never feels skewed too far in one direction or the other.
Tracking down the cubes, keys and map pieces is the obvious part of Fez, but as you play, you'll find a much more cryptic aspect to the game that will either utterly intrigue you or drive you crazy, depending on your threshold for mystery. Fez spits out clues that seem to have nothing to do with anything you've seen so far - like instructions to gather owls or rotate headstones, and sometimes it just leaves curious writing on the wall, leaving you to figure out what, if anything, it all means. Some of Fez's questions can't even be answered until after you finish the game, which gives you even more incentive to tackle its New Game Plus mode. But expect to feel like you have no idea what's going on much of the time, because you won't.
Fez has a stripped down, retro aesthetic with pixely graphics and a booptastic soundtrack, but the blocky appearance can be a bit of a hindrance when it comes to finding your way around. In fairness to the game, mapping out the relationship between the game's many interconnecting levels is a tricky endeavor, but the windows representing most levels are so tiny that it can be hard to distinguish one locale from another. Warp gates create shortcuts that eliminate some of the necessary backtracking, but there's no simple way to check the map to see what levels you've yet to clear and get back to them. Even when you can tell one level from another, the map fails to make it clear which door you need to use to travel from one point to the other. I felt lost most of the time I was playing Fez, but exploring each new location was enjoyable enough that I didn't usually mind too much. Players more intent on chasing down every last treasure chest, locked door, or map piece may rapidly lose patience with Fez's approach to navigation.
Fez delivers an experience that strikes a remarkable balance between being openly accessible and pleasingly obtuse . If you just want to explore the charming environments, collecting cubes and turning a blind eye to the game's many mysteries, you will have a wonderful time doing so. If you'd rather put your brain to work parsing clues and solving puzzles, you'll give your brain a thorough workout.
Bottom Line: Fez straddles the line between platformer and puzzler, taking the best from each genre and blending it into a refreshing whole. It doesn't punish experimentation or require advanced controller skills, letting you discover the game's secrets at your own pace.
Recommendation: Pick it up, and work on it with friends.
This review is based on the XBLA version of the game.