The genius of Arcade titles lies almost entirely in their durability. For while big budget games are monuments to the fanatic must-have-it-now crowd, minor titles with strong core gameplay have a longer period of relevance. And in many ways, an increased life span. Think about games like Limbo, Bastion, or Braid, all small-studio efforts which are constantly being found by curious minds or through word of mouth. This is how Valve’s Steam application and each console’s individual arcade nexus are all kept afloat. This continued notion, that easy access and clever gameplay should be rewarded, lies at the forefront of the Arcade movement.
And finally, XBox has its first 2012 Arcade game worth mentioning alongside the best of the best: Fez.
Fez’s core gameplay is so delightfully simple that it could drive you mad. Set in a 2-D world, our main character Gomez is given a magic fez which can allow him to flip dimensions left and right. Conceptually, it’s like having a 6-sided die. Gomez and his people were used to seeing only the 1-dotted side all their lives. But Gomez can now view sides 1, 2, 3 & 4 individually with his new power. You could also try watching this PAX East Gameplay Video, if my die analogy isn’t workin’ for ya. Because of this power, Gomez can traverse towering landscapes and solve complex puzzles. You’ll rarely be doing anything other than switching perspectives and jumping, but to be honest it never really gets old.
The most compelling aspects here are that of exploration and comprehension. Many of Fez’s secrets are vaguely presented, requiring some depth of thought and analysis. Signs are in a strange language, codes are unintelligible until a cipher is given later in the game, and even the so-called “treasure maps” are designed to be interpreted instead of merely read. Heck, some puzzles even require outside peripherals to decode. Yet even if you don’t feel up to the challenge, there still are a lot of relatively straight-forward levels which can be traversed without much difficulty. But a warning to any completionists out there, a lot of clues aren’t obvious, and I even found myself backtracking to certain levels multiple times without figuring out certain secrets. Though in my case, I love how even after beating the game some of its deeper puzzles are still out of my grasp.
Stylistically, Fez can be a little intense. Large-scale maps all have individual flavor, the game’s 8-bit framework deceptively keeping a larger, 3-D world behind the scenes at all times. Themes range from cutesy forest in the clouds to a sewage-green tinged underground, various mechanics specific to each theme helping push the overall character. It’s easy though to miss the forest for the trees, each level boasting such intricacy that the visuals and soundtrack can go unnoticed at times. But this is a good thing, it reveals how immersive Fez can end up being. I noticed that on my Xbox, occasionally the graphics would have trouble loading, ultimately crashing a couple of times. Unique for an 8-bit game, though it shows how much detail is put into each level to keep loading times down.
If I had to give one strike to Fez, it would be Gomez’s movement. This is of course no Super Meat Boy, but Gomez can feel a bit weighted at times, especially when you NEED him to make a long jump. It’s barely a trifle though, for the majority of jumps are easy and the rest of the game with its lengthy content makes up for this issue. Fez is one of the few XBL Arcade games out which I believe supply enough content to make the purchase truly worth it, along with perhaps Shadow Complex and Super Meat Boy. If you have an Xbox and a puzzle solving mind, be sure to try the demo on XBL Arcade!