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