When it comes to indie games, Fez is the indie game. From its initial reveal in 2008 where it won countless awards, to its protracted development cycle (showcased in the documentary Indie Game: The Movie), to its eventual release: no other game has epitomised the concept of independent gaming so well. From its 8-bit art style to its chiptune soundtrack, Fez is designed from the top down with all of the well-worn tropes we’ve come to expect.
What’s remarkable is that despite these clichés, Fez still stands out as one of the best in its class.
In Fez, you play as Gomez, a pale creature who one day discovers that there’s more to his little 2D village than meets the eye. Tasked with collecting 32 cubes scattered across the game, players are able to rotate the world on a 3D plane with a tap of a button; revealing hidden doors, passages, and bringing previously unreachable platforms directly to your feet. This simple mechanic revolutionises the platforming genre, and is central to progressing in Fez. The puzzles are intricately designed to provide unique logical problems that become more technically sophisticated as the game advances, yet they never feel out of reach and never seem unfair or obtuse. The more you play, the more you understand of what the game expects from you. It’s this intricate design that makes Fez so rewarding.
Though its charming visuals are both inviting and stimulating, Fez pairs this with marvellous sound design to create a sophisticated game that feels decidedly primitive on the surface. The pixel art and the sound effects that are at once serene can then also be reminiscent of someone trying to molest a ZX Spectrum, which all combines to create an air of fond nostalgia. However, people who weren’t around during the 8-bit era or who don’t have that frame of reference will not be put off by the game’s appealing design. It’s a love letter to the past wrapped up in a layer of sophistication that is unexpected and delightful.
Phil Fish, the game’s enigmatic creator, once described the game as a “sit back and smell the flowers” kind of game. With its ambient sound design, steady platforming, lack of enemies and focus on exploration, that description certainly fits the bill. Day turns into night, rabbits and seagulls hop merrily amongst the undergrowth, and the game doesn’t press you to push forward. The only encouragement you have is the personal satisfaction of collecting everything and interacting with new, vibrant levels.
This makes Fez sound like a laid back kind of game, which may seem unattractive to players who are hankering for a challenge. But don’t fret; Fez has you covered in that front too. The game is packed with hidden codes, ciphers and QR codes that the average player probably won’t even notice on a first play through. New Game+ offers a unique experience with some utterly mind-bending secrets and challenges. Two years since its original release and people are still trying to hack their way into the game’s code to uncover its secrets. The development team still seem to think that there things yet undiscovered in Fez, which is more than enough reason to get involved and immersed into its deep secrets.
Since that initial preview back in 2008, Fez inspired a slew of independent releases that used retro assets and concepts, many of which released while Fez was still mired in development hell. It’s testament to the design decisions taken that Fez has managed to come out of a five year, high profile cycle and still overtake the competition. However, given all that time, it would have been nice to see some of the bugs ironed out. Occasionally there can be instances when clear button inputs don’t register or certain platforms don’t behave as they should, but these instances are too few and far between to cause any significant headaches.
Originally released in 2012 on Xbox 360 as a timed exclusive, Fez is now available on PC, PS3, PS4 and Vita. This month it is completely free for PS Plus members, so there’s really no excuse to miss out.