If you are unfamiliar with Fez, I'd like to start by saying that you should stop reading and play it. Or at least play the first half an hour of the game. It's a game in which you wouldn't traditionally expect spoilers to be an issue, but there is a component to the game which I imagine could be wonderful to experience without any prior knowledge (I would love to read about someones experience of playing it, if this describes them).
That's pretty special really; a mechanic which has such a revealing impact that it should be witnessed rather than read. Mechanics though, are generally pitched to sell the game, so it's not unsurprising that they're not spoiler territory. This stuff is usually saved for story related twists and reveals. Having experienced it, I would loved to have done so unknowing. But perhaps there is a specific, and equally exciting emotion granted to those entering with anticipation of the moment, and it's why I still ended up with a smirk at the end of it.
If you haven't stopped reading to play, bad luck, because this is where I'm going to talk about that moment. For those in the know, that moment of course, is the reveal of the alternate dimensions of play, within what was originally presented as two-dimensional world.
When this moment is delivered to the player, it is preceded by the somewhat familiar 'manufactured glitch'. It's not a new idea, it was in the second X-Men game for the Sega Mega-Drive, and perhaps more well known, is when it slips itself into elements of (spoiler)... Metal Gear Solid 2. But it's still novel enough. You will know what is happening, but the game handles it in a sound enough way.
Upon reentering the game, faux-glitch be damned, you are soon presented with a world which now is working on plains which didn't originally exist. It's not traditionally '3D' though, and labeling it so would be a little misguided. It's essentially four, two-dimensional environments, which the player can access at will. Now, I won't go on explaining all that it is. Those who did continue to read have played the game, or know what the game is, so I don't need to explain, or reiterate as the case may be.
So, we can now start get into the meat: What of Fez makes it a "Masterpiece"?
The game is art. The complexity of the design, and how it keys together is an astonishing achievement. And when you are rotating the world and seeing new paths emerge, as well as hidden secrets, all cleverly tucked away and knitted together, you can't help but be awed. This complexity, and the sheer scale of it is a grand achievement, and it answers the questions of why the game took so long to develop. You can imagine the frustration of trying to piece this all together in functional way, and to do so deserves praise.
Consider for a moment what level design is. The best example, due to familiarity and simplicity, is a Mario title. Each platform is placed for a reason, the length, height, and positioning are purposely positioned and shaped. Then, there may be something on the platform, perhaps it's breakable, maybe there is an enemy of some kind in the proximity of the platform. All of this designed. It's also all designed to relate to your playing ability and also, the avatar which you control. The speed, resilience and agility of Mario is known, and this has to be factored into the layout of the level.
Sometimes, you cannot reach a ledge, this is done so purposely. But you often find there is still an equally deliberate way to reach that ledge. Perhaps you're expected to pass under it, to use a wandering enemy or lower ledge to reach it. This is all designed, manufactured.
Now, what Fez does, is that it times this complexity by four. And then each of these four stages are connected. That unreachable platform is now reachable, but the lower platform isn't. Switch again, and neither can be reached, but a whole new path is opened to the player. This new path may have objects which then offer alternate solutions to the first two paths. This is the design of Fez. It's remarkably complex.
It's easy to both ignore and realize the complexity depending on how you look at it. You can reach a simplistic goal, or segment of that goal, through the use of a single plane or two, and you begin thinking in a single dimension. You can view one plane, consider how it can be navigated, and the progress to the next. But an alternate way of thinking, is to consider all dimensions simultaneously, and attempting to decipher the puzzles in a single attempt. Considering the world as one, rather than as four. Remembering this is sometimes how you will end up progressing beyond specific points.
It can sometimes seem as though you have to remind yourself how smart the game is. It's easy to fall back into what is familiar, and try and progress in a more traditional sense, only to get stuck momentarily for you to remember that the world can be rotated. It isn't as if this is a long term loss of memory, and you forget about the function. It's happens in fractions of second. Perhaps it's related to how your brain is conceiving the space in front of you until it is refreshed.
Fez is a fantastic puzzle box. Its genius and its excellence comes with how these four planes merge, and how they get you involved in visualizing how pathways within this world can be found. And when you are pondering and digesting the possibilities, when you are momentarily disorientated. Fez is the worlds greatest toy, a brain teaser. An IQ test questioning you to think in more than a single dimension. It's the grounds for something even more fantastic. It was almost there.
This brings me to: What is "Terrible" about Fez?
For all of it's complexity, and ability to take you away from traditional thinking, it manages to undermine this by being the most simple game possible.
Imagine getting ready to play Scrabble, but instead of looking for words, using the multipliers for points, and using existing letters to creatively open new spaces for new words, the rules are simply: place your tiles on the board. This is Fez.
In someways, it seems as though the play isn't finished. Perhaps this is partially due to how heavily it contrasts with the design, but when you play it, there are parts of the play which just seem to be working solutions to problems not fully resolved.
There is the death mechanic. Death doesn't really exist in Fez, but the closest you get to that element is when you fall from a platform, you respawn on the platform you fell from, granted that it is a stable platform. Death either happens from falling onto another solid platform from too greater height, or falling into the void. There aren't any real hazards in Fez, so this is about it.
But for a game so cleaver, to end up resorting to this... it's just odd. It doesn't seem like it's supposed to be this way. It's the most basic punishment outside of losing a life. I don't believe the player should lose a life, that would be a worse result. But it makes the act of falling or misjudging a fall, mostly pointless. There is no penalty. You could argue that Fez is not about platforming, but about solving the puzzle. But the gameplay is to platform, to navigate. It's about not only solving the puzzle, but how you then navigate the puzzle.
I won't say that I have a better solution, it would be arrogant and ignorant to what may have been intended. But for what the game is, I would expect a more progressive penalty for failure.
In addition to the death mechanic, the game is simply about collecting objects. There's no real agency outside of what you grant yourself, and your personal determination to unlock the puzzles and navigate the stages. I don't think there should be a time limit placed, because that could be more detrimental, but there is very little drive. This, plus the death mechanic seem to come as afterthoughts. It's as if there was an amazing idea, and it was placed in a game world without considering elements of play. The idea is superb, that part is correct, but it's more like a proof of concept than anything else.
This becomes more apparent when you see how unrefined the gameplay itself is, this time referring to the input. At times it can be unresponsive. Jumps and ledges seem to be inconsistent, when you think you should be grabbing a ledge, on occasion, you won't. So it's both unresponsive an fickle, and for a platforming game, those are two things it certainly should not be.
You can become familiar with this, and even the strange weight the game has. It seems sluggish, but it again, falls way behind the expectations set by the core idea of the game. I don't believe that it needs to be hyper reactive to input, and Gomez doesn't and shouldn't be overly nimble, but his plodding movements are not met with a punishment clever enough to make the perhaps unintentional peril of navigation more entertaining. It all comes together to seem formulaic, just part of the process which you just end up grinding through after solving the puzzle.
How about the basics?
From a presentation perspective, Fez is solid enough. It does what it needs to, and although the visuals don't look as nice in action as they do in stills, the art direction is still pleasant. There's a broad pallet of colours, and some of the areas are gorgeous to look at, but that is mostly due to the mechanic of manipulation. One thing it does do, is that it makes things clear enough. You shouldn't find yourself not being sure as to what is a platform and what isn't, besides some odd moments where piping or plumbing is present. But this again goes back to how it doesn't seem to be fully finished as a game, or at least, to the extent of what is expected based on the creativity of the core mechanic, and the quality in which that is implemented.
Basically, it does the job, and so does the music. It's what is needed for this type of game, where it isn't grand enough to distract the play, it settles nicely into the background. But this isn't my review of the game, simply what I have experienced and what it made me think. So it may seem as though I look lightly into both the visuals and audio, it's because I never intended to.
I believe that some of the flaws with play, are supposed to be balanced off by some of the charm in the game world. But Fez isn't as charming as it thinks it is. A lot of care and attention has been placed into the character of the world, and the animations have been added to grant a little extra layer to the characters themselves, but it's more a nice touch than something which could help carry the game in places. Charm seems to be quite a big thing with indie games, and the quirkiness and uniqueness, the polish into the minor points, often win a lot of admirers.
It all comes together though, to be something which doesn't yet feel fully finished. It shows some truly great ideas of what games can be, and how it can get you to think. Its environment is far more exciting than solving a traditional puzzle, which often requires you to map out a solution, and then tick the box. The game asks you to think in a different way, and sometimes it's challenging to do so because it isn't what you're used to, and this is what Fez gets so right. This is what makes Fez a masterpiece and one of the greatest examples of why games are art. Here, it's all about design.
Yet, it is flawed. It's flawed as a game, its ideas are too big to glue together in a more comprehensive experience.
I think of what Fez 2 could have been, but have doubts that it could have been the game which Fez could have been destined for. It seems as though they perfected the hard part already, and wedging in an alternate form of play, would have made it feel too samey in places, and too different in others. It would feel like a different game, rather than a sequel. Imagine it as a 2D platformer, where you essentially play it the same way, but have a different character, new items, and different stage layouts. But I find that Fez is too exhausting to play, to want to go through that whole design again but with some tweaks to the mechanics. This may seem contradictory in a way, considering it's what would iron out what could be the problem areas, but I believe Fez should be an example for new ideas, and it wouldn't do the original brilliance any respect to redo it all again.
Perhaps this is what makes it so special. That is it almost perfect in what it tries to do, and example of an idea being visualized. But also, it reveals some of the holes in what we know as traditional play. Traditional play has been a plague on game evolution for a long time, games have relied of experience points, leveling up, shooting galleries and scripted segments, so that it remains a game in a traditional sense. This doesn't mean we need to be rid of any of these, but there is plenty of room for alternatives.
It means, that it can work as an example of what else we may need to change, showing that regardless how creative we can be, we still have the problem of falling back on what we know as traditional play, a traditional game.
I have yet to finish with Fez, and will continue to enjoy it. These are simply my initial impressions, and I expect to have a different perspective by the time I am fully finished with the game, and have had ample time to digest it. But I will recommend that everyone should play the game though, warts and all.