Tetris Ef­fect

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Tetris Ef­fect is at its best when you for­get you are play­ing Tetris. That’s not as sur­pris­ing as it might seem: puz­zle games – of which Tetris re­mains the king – are all about the zen-like flow state you en­ter when play­ing well. It’s a sen­sa­tion that’s formed the focal point of Tet­suya Mizuguchi’s lat­est game, and has been taken to un­prece­dented heights thanks to the sort of au­dio­vi­sual spec­ta­cle that has be­come the Rez cre­ator’s call­ing card. So yes, when things are go­ing well, you for­get you’re play­ing Tetris. The no­tion of thumbs work­ing a con­troller fades away, and ev­ery­thing just sort of hap­pens in front of you. Yet here you’ll also for­get you’re play­ing Tetris be­cause you’re a vir­tu­oso pi­anist in the mid­dle of a jazz wig-out. You’re the fes­ti­val DJ work­ing the crowd into a frenzy be­fore the drop. You’re the mys­ti­cal shaman, di­rect­ing pray­ers with a thun­der­ous tribal rhythm.

All the while, you are stack­ing blocks, tidy­ing up, though the core busi­ness of Tetris has never felt like such a back­ground ac­tiv­ity. The play­ing field is set well back, oc­cu­py­ing a frac­tion of the dis­play – a de­ci­sion that serves a dual pur­pose, re­duc­ing eye strain in long vir­tual-re­al­ity ses­sions while also max­imis­ing the im­pact of the Mizuguchi mad­ness that’s kick­ing off around it. You can zoom in us­ing the left stick, but do­ing so breaks the spell some­what; like a good al­bum, this is at its best when ex­pe­ri­enced as its cre­ator in­tended.

In­deed, that’s the best way to think of Tetris Ef­fect’s main mode, Jour­ney. It’s an al­bum, or a DJ mix­tape, or a con­cert per­for­mance, with a rigid setlist (while you can play in­di­vid­ual songs, there’s no op­tion to com­pile a playlist of your favourites, or even to change the run­ning or­der). Split into sec­tions of be­tween three and five songs, Jour­ney mode is a tightly cu­rated mix from a se­lec­tor who doesn’t take re­quests, and is fully de­serv­ing of its name. Even in­di­vid­ual songs have a sense of move­ment, of a voy­age – of, yes, a trip (the game’s devel­op­ment co­de­name, and with good rea­son). De­serted, the open­ing track of Jour­ney’s stand­out chap­ter, starts with you look­ing out over a herd of camels in some sun-parched for­eign land. The cam­era pulls up and away, the sun sinks over the hori­zon, be­fore you set­tle on the Moon to watch a buggy roll slowly around, kick­ing up par­ti­cle ef­fects from the crust.

Just as Jour­ney mode forces you to play to its rhythm, so the back­ing track dic­tates the pace and style of your play. Mov­ing a fall­ing block plays a cer­tain sound ef­fect; like­wise a ro­ta­tion, a block clicking into place, or a line clear. This is noth­ing new for Mizuguchi, who was do­ing this stuff in Lu­mines al­most 15 years ago. Yet it has never felt so right. There’s some clever stuff go­ing on be­hind the scenes, you sus­pect, the re­sponse to your in­puts de­layed im­per­cep­ti­bly to en­sure they sync up per­fectly with the mu­sic. In Down­town Jazz, an­other high­light, each ro­ta­tion plays a flurry of notes, which hides any off-time move­ments while also mak­ing you feel like the great­est pi­anist that ever tick­led an ivory. It’s in­tox­i­cat­ing stuff, and you’ll of­ten find your­self think­ing of the mu­sic far more than the puz­zling.

You’ll come to prize re­straint in your play as much as, if not more than, suc­cess. At Nor­mal dif­fi­culty, songs re­quire you to clear 36 lines; if it has three sec­tions, it will move be­tween them after ev­ery 12 clears. If you’re play­ing one of your favourites, you’ll want to keep it go­ing for as long as pos­si­ble. It’s here that Tetris Ef­fect be­comes more per­for­mance than game, one you un-play, let­ting blocks drop at nat­u­ral speed as you ro­tate and move them around in (seem­ingly) per­fect time. And when you’re ready, you slam down a Tetris or two, the mu­sic kick­ing up a gear, the vi­su­als get­ting ever more in­tense as you move on to the next phase. It’s at mo­ments like these that you start to won­der whether this might be the best thing Tet­suya Mizuguchi has ever made. It cer­tainly con­tains enough in­di­vid­ual mo­ments of won­der – where mu­sic, vi­su­als and me­chan­ics col­lide in ways to make ev­ery hair on your body stand on end at once – to rank along­side his best. And there’s a unique feel­ing to it, a cleans­ing sort of bliss that makes it a won­der­ful game to dip into after a rough day. There’s a no­tice­able res­o­lu­tion drop when mov­ing from TV to PSVR – some­thing that wasn’t a prob­lem for Rez In­fi­nite’s 15-year-old graph­ics – but it soon fades. While it’s a won­der­ful game on a good TV, it’s some­thing else en­tirely in VR, a sort of sen­sory iso­la­tion tank where you can for­get about your trou­bles and let the sights and sounds wash over you.

There are prob­lems, sure. Per­haps the big­gest comes when the game re­minds you that you’re play­ing Tetris. The pace can change sud­denly, and vi­o­lently, dur­ing cer­tain songs, and while you’ll even­tu­ally learn when trou­ble’s com­ing, you’ll of­ten wish that such a sooth­ingly psy­che­delic game wasn’t quite so fond of turn­ing into a bad trip at the drop of a beat. The fi­nal Jour­ney stage, Meta­mor­pho­sis, has a lu­di­crously speedy fi­nal stretch that feels at odds with its ten-minute run­time. And it wards you off the other modes: suf­fice it to say that Marathon, which reaches su­per­hu­man speeds at its peak, might as well not be in our copy of the game. It’s quite the spec­ta­cle on YouTube, mind.

It wouldn’t be a Mizuguchi sym­phony with­out a few bum notes, though, and the tremen­dous, yet weirdly cleans­ing thrill of Jour­ney en­sures Tetris Ef­fect is es­sen­tial de­spite its peaks and troughs. It is a game to be snacked on, rather than de­voured, a col­lec­tion of 15-minute mix­tapes that take you from desert to ocean to space and beyond, show­er­ing your nerve cen­tres in par­ti­cles, beefy kick­drums and warm synths. It is a game you’ve played a thou­sand times be­fore – yet there is noth­ing else quite like it.

Jour­ney mode is a tightly cu­rated mix from a se­lec­tor who doesn’t take re­quests

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