The middle of 2007 was a great time for perspective shifting. In April, Nintendo released Super Paper Mario, wherein Mario was able to push back from 2d to reveal a hidden z-axis. The following month, Sega gave PSP users a similar experience with Crush, which added the ability to spin the camera when in a 3d perspective to alter the world when “crushed” back to 2d. It was amid the sudden genesis of this new camera mechanic that Phil Fish announced FEZ on July 17, 2007. A few months shy of five years later, we get to see if the mechanic still feels novel.
With a menu screen seemingly ripped out of an Atari 2600 game and its 8-bit inspired graphics, FEZ presents itself as a throwback to a bygone era. The main character, Gomez, seems to be generally enjoying his simple village life. He has a kickass drum set and a firm grasp on the two-dimensional nature of his world. This all changes when he is given a very stylish and seemingly magical hat that grants him the ability to shift his perspective and maneuver in the third dimension. Something terribly wrong happens, as it often does, and Gomez sets off on a grand adventure to collect cubes that have been scattered about his world – a world that is unraveling and bending in upon itself.
If you’ll pardon the pun, everything right about FEZ can be summed up in one word: depth. It’s easy to be engrossed with a 3d world binding itself to the constraints of a 2d viewpoint, and Polytron does a great job of keeping the concept fresh. Once you get too comfortable with navigating the world, you’re forced to jump on spinning platforms that shift the perspective for you, making that next jump impossible if timed wrong. Before you get bored with the puzzling, you’re given bombs that can blast through certain walls, but only if you can work your way over to them before the fuse burns out. Variety is the lifeblood of platformers, and FEZ never seems to stop mixing things up.
But the best example of depth in FEZ isn’t just the literal depth of field or metaphorical depth of gameplay, it’s in the level design itself. Every screen feels like a world all its own, filled with doors transporting you to other realms, secret rooms, or providing you a shortcut back closer to the central hub. You will often see the next area in the background, hovering through the mists. Passing through doorways makes the camera zoom off towards this distant land, giving the feeling of falling ever further away from the village Gomez calls home.
This labyrinthian structure is laid out in one of the most confusing world maps in the history of gaming. Imagine that feeling you get when you first look at a mall directory and have to resist the urge to turn your head to orient your mind to the 2d overhead view. Looking at the map for FEZ gives that same feeling, drawn out for as long as your eyes dwell there. Individual screens are represented in all three dimensions by cubes branching off at 90° angles from connecting screens, though nothing hints to you where within the levels these connections lie. Despite the vertigo, the map does an admirable job helping you know when there’s more to be done in a given area. You’re seldom stuck wondering where you should go next, even if it takes some time to figure out how to get there.
When FEZ was announced, it was easy to imagine that by the time of its release perspective shifting would be a well established puzzle game trope. However aside from Sony’s Echochrome series, few games have traveled the path Super Paper Mario and Crush carved out. That’s perhaps part of the reason FEZ feels new to so many people; if the core mechanic isn’t totally innovative it is at least exceedingly rare. Those who have been waiting years for FEZ will likely be thrilled with what they find here. Everyone else will find a charming and graceful platformer that keeps you moving ever forward and deeper but never robs you of the ability to occasionally come up for air.