November 23, 2019 at 2:10 AM #611
Rating: 2.0 – Poor
H E R E S Y
FRIENDS! If you have been keeping on top of "the haps" in the gaming media, doubtless you have heard the gospel of Tetris Effect: how it will forge peace between warring nations, heal your physical ailments, and resolve your social media disputes with your slave-labor programming staff. Reviewers promise an emotional roller-coaster, a life-changing experience – a milestone in one’s existence.
Alas, I come before you a godless
unredeemed by the light of Tetris Effect‘s divine love. Indeed, where all else see the masterwork of God, I would venture to say there is naught but a game where the basic mechanics are broken, slathered in a distracting mishmash of particle effects.
Admittedly, unlike other reviewers, I wasn’t high when I played it.
The basic concept of Tetris Effect is: hey, Lumines was cool, right? This is Tetris with Lumines skins and lots of particle effects. Indeed, Lumines was cool, so Lumines-tinged Tetris isn’t a bad starting point. While more elaborate, though, the skin concepts aren’t as successfully executed or blended with the game elements as they were in 2004 on the PSP. Tetris Effect focuses on visuals with a global flavor, and some of the levels are very nice; a grassy field at sunrise with pieces shaped like hot-air balloons, the sound of a burner firing with every drop, or a windswept stage of blinding light and windmills, the pieces assemblies of gears that make satisfyingly crunchy & clicky grinding noises when rotated.
The visuals are frequently distracting, though, as when fire & ice splash across the screen in the "Yin & Yang" stage so you can’t see the pieces, or when the board in "Pharaoh’s Code" pulses to the beat with light so bright it’s blinding. The sound design on some levels, such as the fireworks stage, also drowns out needed sound cues in gameplay. These appear to be failures of design rather than intentional obstacles; the designers were so in love with creating a psychedelic light & sound show that they didn’t care if it detracted from gameplay. There are a few attempts to reconcile the visuals with the Tetris, such as the stage that follows a troupe of Native American riders and provides satisfying variations in drop speed timed to how fast the horses are traveling. For the most part, though, the collusion between gameplay and presentation ends up like the final level, with its airy, mellow paean to love and harmony and dolphins paired with pieces screaming at Mach 5 down to the bottom of the pit. This is a disappointment and a step back from the Lumines titles, which successfully presented pleasing, sharp graphics and even full music videos while keeping gameplay elements front-and-center where they needed to be. (There are also fewer skins in Tetris Effect than there were in the PSP games: just a couple dozen compared to the 40+ in the Lumines titles.)
Besides the Lumines flavor, the game sells itself on its "Tetris ZONE" mechanic, where clearing a certain amount of lines will allow you to freeze time for a set amount of pieces. The lines you clear in the *~Tetris ZONE~* count as one big…tris for scoring purposes, allowing you to rack up big points for combos like Octorises and Dodecatrises that wouldn’t be possible in normal gameplay. Lines cleared in the Tetris Zone don’t count toward your per-level quota, though, and it’s of real use only if you’ve set the board up in advance to get those big combos – in other words, it won’t really save you if you’re in trouble – so the Zone is not the game-changer the developers seemingly believe it to be.
Rather, I would say the game’s big idea as "LOL GO FAST." Much of the game is played at speeds of 10 or above, and a sizable chunk is set at level 15, at which point pieces simply apparate at the top of your stack, with no falling involved. This is the Lost Levels of Tetris – a game for Super Players, not a general audience. As with Mario, though, it turns out those levels were lost for a reason: the developers were so obsessed with making something HARDCORE that they forgot to make something smart, well-designed, or fun. A better-designed game would have done something with stack shapes or pieces or time limits to vary gameplay and create difficulty, but such gambits are relegated to a very limited presence in bonus modes. If you cannot already play Tetris at Speed 10, there is very little here for you.
Now, the devs realized that Tetris at these speeds isn’t really playable long-term, so they resorted to…well, breaking the gameplay in a weird way. Those familiar with newer incarnations of Tetris know about "infinite spin": the added mechanic where pieces that hit the top of the stack stay in play and mobile rather than settling into place as long as the player keeps spinning the piece. Well, I found that if I kept spinning the pieces in Tetris Effect while pressing left or right, I was able to get them to places where they shouldn’t, geometrically, have been able to go, such as over protrusions or out of pits. Consequently, I beat the game’s many, many instant-drop levels not by using my brain but just by keeping the pieces rotating endlessly so that the broken physics allowed me to slop them over to semi-acceptable positions.
Reviewers claim that this makes Tetris Effect the perfect Tetris training tool – because it’s fast Tetris, right? So you have to get good to beat the levels! I disagree. I’m not getting good at Tetris; I’m getting good at glitching out Tetris. (So it’s like SMB2: Lost Levels if gameplay revolved entirely around jumping through pipes to get to the Minus World.)
Since a trip through the main mode will take you only an hour or two, the game pads itself out with a handful of extra modes. These include Mystery, an endless mode peppered with periodic annoyances such as the board being flipped, and Master, where – gee, what a idea – pieces appear on the board at super-fast speeds and spins are limited. The concepts are interesting, but the modes don’t last long and are diversions at best. The game lacks any sort of local or online head-to-head mode; I suppose competition would go against the title’s global-harmony posturing. Most accomplishments net you only in-game avatars, which are shown solely on a world map of players currently online.
I have to mention the music, which has been singled out for praise as transcending musical tastes. Dear reader, I own nearly every album Enya has ever released. If new age has an equivalent of butt rock, this is it: the genre’s most stereotypical elements distilled into Muzak as a high, reedy, textureless voice sings about dolphins. The lyrics recall the Game Grumps routine about Crush 40 Sonic songs ("WE GOTTA FIGHT FOR OUR LIFE ‘CAUSE YOU’RE THE BEST AN’ EVERYONE LIKES YOU"). You have heard better new age music over the loudspeakers at your local health food store.
I don’t what this looks like in VR, and given the abysmal diffusion rate of home VR headsets at this writing, neither will you, most likely. It could be, as some promise, a significantly improved experience, but it’s not the one most of us will have with the game, and it wouldn’t fix the gameplay.
Before I close, we have to get serious and talk about the unprecedented level of outlandishness in the critical praise this game has received. Contrary to most positive reviews, which examine successful mechanics, technical performance, or innovative concepts, the raves for Tetris Effect are founded in an emotional response to the game. That’s a legitimate vector for praise, but in nearly all cases, that emotional response is overwhelming and, frankly, disturbingly cultish. Gamespot’s review is perhaps emblematic of the issue: it promises that you’ll experience a "complex emotional journey that defies expectations" and form a "sympathetic," "quasi-spiritual bond" with the Tetris game. "Don’t be surprised if you catch yourself bursting with joy…or on the verge of tears," it warns, concluding: "It is the definition of awesome, and if you have an open heart…you owe it to yourself to take the plunge."
Differences of opinion exist, obviously. But reviewers overwhelmingly liked God of War and Red Dead too this year – and they didn’t promise that those titles would transform your life.
There is nothing like that in Tetris Effect. Nothing. I am completely puzzled and lost as to what is spiritual or deep about this Tetris game. Is it the new age accoutrements? Do these reviewers fall prostrate whenever they enter a metaphysical bookstore? A return to the cult analogy seems apt, given the slavish adoration and effusive promises about a paradise that just doesn’t exist, with those who don’t get it dismissed as the spiritually impure (or lacking an "open heart," as Gamespot put it). The crying, sobbing, and fits of ecstasy this game has allegedly inspired are just completely inexplicable outside of pharmaceutical intervention. But a game shouldn’t need Pot Sold Separately to be good. I cannot see the greatness of Tetris Effect any more than I can see the emperor’s new clothes, and I’m frankly unnerved by the lack of comment on the utter abdication of perspective here.
We’re left with a game that, for all its pretensions of peace, is at war with itself. The title makes elaborate, dynamic visuals a selling point but focuses on gameplay so fast you can’t tear yourself away to enjoy the show – where, in fact, that lavish presentation often proves an active distraction to progress. Most of its modes are geared toward high-level Tetris players, but success depends on, in effect, glitching out the game instead instead of skillful play. It’s still Tetris, and there’s only so much you can do to break arguably the greatest game of all time – though, Maisie, these developers tried. If given a choice, though…I think I would take Tetris ’89, honestly. Certainly, no track in Tetris Effect is as good as that one iconic song.
In conclusion: if this outsells Return of the Obra Dinn, we deserve to have Judgment Day come upon us and the Father nuke the planet for the faithful immediately.
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