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Tetris Effect (PlayStation 4) artwork

Tetris Effect (PlayStation 4) review

"A celebration of the senses that pushes a classic of the medium to unforeseen heights."

A new Tetris game should have very little capacity to surprise anymore. The game was invented 34 years ago, in a Russian lab by an enterprising AI researcher named Alexey Pajitnov, and there have been dozens of sequels and spin-offs over the years. All of these games have changed features on the margins, but it says everything about the precise brilliance of this deceptively simple game that so little about it has required change since its debut. The core game has stayed the same, because what kind of idiot would try to change Tetris? Perfection is only a concept, but itís hard to remember that when the cycle of creating and erasing lines of blocks is so damn satisfying. That quality can be both a gift and a curse. It leaves developers of new Tetris game in a difficult bind: How do you make Tetris feel fresh and exciting in 2018? Is it even possible? Amid a brilliant score and stunning graphical flourishes, Tetris Effect answers that second question with an emphatic yes.

Tetris Effect gets its name from an unofficial condition, that lingering post-Tetris sensation where you see those signature shapes coming together everywhere you look. Itís something weíve all felt before in some form. But Tetrisí effect on the brain goes deeper than mere pattern recognition. Somewhat idiosyncratically, for a game that becomes dizzyingly frantic at higher levels, Tetris has been proven to be a helpful mental health aid. To be good at Tetris requires you to continually balance three or four things - the current layout of the screen, what to do with the piece slowly or quickly falling to the bottom, if that piece is more useful than the one youíre holding in reserve, and what you might do with the next piece ready to drop - at once, the puzzle changing shape every couple seconds. Pretty impossible to think about your insecurities or the extent of your self-loathing while keeping track of everything happening on the screen. Itís comforting in a way. Thatís probably one of the underlying reasons for the franchises' durability, or why I always return to Tetris DS during extended power outages. My anxiety flares up pretty quickly when deprived of distracting stimuli, and Tetris is more or less guaranteed to calm me down. Tetris has always had a way of applying a fisheye lens to oneís senses, making the game the only thing worth considering while you play it. You always sort of knew what you were getting when you sat down to play. That is not the case with Tetris Effect, a game that takes a kaleidoscopic sledgehammer to my expectations of what a Tetris game is capable of.

The mere announcement of Tetris Effect brought about the highest of expectations of expectations. Tetsuya Mizuguchi has been the main mind making some of the most dynamic and innovative rhythm-based games the medium has ever seen. His best games - Rez, Lumines, Child of Eden in that order - have a timelessness about them because of the unique way they utilize the music the games are built around. You donít have to learn an instrument to play them (the PS2 version of Rez did come with a trance vibrator, but no one has to learn how those work), theyíre rhythm games in the literal sense. They understand that the visceral relationship between people and music, the ways our favorite songs make us feel something on an instinctive level. Rez doesnít really have much of a story, but the instrumental of each level does make you want to shoot your shapeshifting vector enemies on beat. Itís easy to see why bringing this mentality to Tetris wouldíve enamored Miz so much for so long. (He first approached the founder of the Tetris Company about making this game in 2012.) His take on a bonafide classic would be fascinating at worst, superlative at best. Thankfully, itís the latter.

Tetris Effect is a brilliant synthesis of the best aspects of Tetris and Miziguchiís stylish sensibilities. Itís a cliche to describe things as breathtaking but my first hour or so with the game left me awestruck in a way few games do. It all comes down to a masterful display of restraint. The style is never hidden, but it takes a while to fully bloom. The effects start subtle, with stylized Tetrominos emitting staccato bursts of music signaling every move a la Lumines. Eventually, the level speed kicks up, and the magic starts.

Every level has its own visualizer that increases in scope as you improve your score, reaching this vibrant crescendo that is still exhilarating to create even after youíve seen it a few times. The rhythms donít get old because the aesthetic of these visuals remains fluid throughout; Tetris Effect pulls inspiration from various cultures and time periods spanning the entire history of mankind - and beyond - all while invoking the works of other creatives. To further encapsulate how wild the art style gets during Tetris Effect, here is a list of things that Tetris Effectís levels remind me of: Rez, Lumines, Child of Eden, the cover for Caribouís Swim album, Nier Automata, Abzu, the assorted works of Team Ico, some unreleased Sia song, and the Stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey - and somehow, it all makes sense that these worlds would be part of the same package. It is a minor miracle that the visual language remains so clear - there was only one level where I had trouble delineating between what was playable and what was not.

Itís impossible to fully comprehend whatís going on while you play but the developers, Monstars Inc. and Resonair, already built a workaround into the game. Tetris Effect includes a theater mode that turns the game into an adjustable screensaver so you can actually take in every detail of the effects.

Much of the music maintains the synthpop lineage of Miziguchiís previous games but pushes the music forward in some pleasantly surprising ways. The songs become a little more anthemic at times to reflect the transformation of the visuals and the scope of their content. Thereís a trap song thrown in there, a first for a Miziguchi game. The soundtrack still isnít available outside of the game and that greatly annoys me. The music and visuals are in total sync even when the mash-ups seem incongruous. ďRitual PassionĒ, a level that mixes fiery Chinese imagery with a sped-up country music vocal over a menacing beat is my current favorite, but that title goes to a different level all the time. The confluence of music and visual effects adorning the play screen make completing lines feel so euphoric in a wild way. That sentence makes it sound like Iím describing cocaine, which Iím not, but Tetris Effect is also extremely addictive and makes your body react in weird ways. There comes a point in every level where I involuntarily stop blinking, which makes playing this game for long periods, much like cocaine (which, again, I have no experience with), an exercise in diminishing returns. Worth it.

Tetris Effectís aesthetic changes are the biggest draw here, but the actual gameplay gets some additions as well, in the form of the Zone mechanic. The game doesnít do anything to call attention to this feature if you donít go through the tutorial. I only noticed it when looking at the trophy list. You get in the zone by filling up the zone meter while playing and then pressing one of the shoulder buttons once itís full. Once activated, the game slows way down, giving you an opportunity to get rid of a lot of lines quickly and increase your score. Cleared lines are moved to the bottom of the screen until the timer runs out and they are erased giving you more room to maneuver once normal service resumes. Itís a super useful feature and it feels great to eliminate a dozen lines at once, but the Zone stuff is the least interesting piece of content in the entire game. While you're in the zone, the color scheme is diffused and the music is numbed like you're listening to a grainy phone recording of a concert you didn't attend. The atmosphere is totally neutered. It has to be there, if for no other reason than to offer a breather when the game gets super difficult, but that sense of obligation keeps the zone from being as jubilant as the rest of the game. I forgot it was there most of the time.

Tetris Effect is split into two modes of play. Journey mode and Effects mode. Journey mode allows you to play throughout every level in Tetris Effect in order, segmented into four or five level chapters. Itís the best way to play the game when you first start out because it gives the game the chance to fully encompass you in its vibe for about an hour or so. When played this way, the game develops a weirdly moving pseudo-narrative, centered on the natural world and humanity's inherent curiosity and connection to it, and by extension, the universe. The sea and the skies are recurring motifs, and examples of recent human history are rare. Thereís a distinct possibility Iím overthinking this, but this is a game that seduces you into this sort of response. The final screen of journey mode is more of a coda than an ending - signing off with a splash screen that simply says ďuntil the next tripĒ. Tetris Effect knows youíll come back for more as soon as possible. You wonít wait long to take the journey again on the harder difficulty that unlocks after you finish it for the first time.

Effects mode is less thought-provoking, but a fantastic display of the gameís skills all the same. 12 modes are divided into 4 categories - Classic (your old standards Marathon, Ultra, and Sprint), Relax (a calmer experience with no game overs and themed playlists soundtracked by ambient tones), Focus (modes where your score is counted by completing specific tasks like chaining combos or Target), and Adventurous. The last category is the most fascinating, since these are the modes where Enhance experiments the most with the Tetris formula. Countdown drops I-blocks onto specific places on the map at certain intervals, Purify counts score by how many dark-colored blocks you get rid of within the time limit, and my personal favorite, Mystery surprises with random, mostly bad effects that drastically change the layout of the field in ways that are equal parts maddening and gleeful. Finding a place for supersized Tetrominos falling onto the screen or attempting to play the game with the entire damn board flipped over is nearly impossible to play but theyíre so silly I canít help but enjoy them.

Because games canít come out without some online component in 2018, Tetris Effect also includes a communal multiplayer event called the Weekend Ritual. For twenty-four hours at the end of every week, all games of Tetris played in a specific Effect mode category will add points towards a community goal. If the goal is reached, then every player who participated in the ritual will receive a new avatar for their profile. The rewards could become even better. The first edition of the event commemorated the game's launch by unlocking a new level based on the Game Boy version of Tetris, iconic theme and all, for a day. The move certainly suggests there are more surprising additions on the horizon.

The new modes are mostly shades of the same color, but the results are substantial enough that Tetris Effect makes every iteration of the series that came before it look rudimentary by comparison. From novice to expert, thereís something for every level of Tetris fan. Enhance has managed to turn Tetris into a sublime audiovisual experience that stands out as the most purely fun game Iíve played all year. Itís a complete package. The $40 price tag was initially glaring, but after playing so much of it for the last week, that charge feels entirely appropriate. Itís truly incredible.

sam1193's avatar
Community review by sam1193 (November 26, 2018)

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