If someone had said the best game of 2018 would be a new Tetris, we’d have laughed them out of the room. The original drop-puzzler may be one of the most popular games of all time but even with many iterations (and shameless knock-offs) over the years, it’s a known quantity. You don’t need to explain what Tetris is to anybody. So what can a new version possibly offer?
Tetris Effect boldly answers this by offering you the world, the universe, and everything in it. You’re not just playing Tetris, you’re feeling it.
From Rez creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi, a Tetris game infused with his unique brand of audiovisual synesthesia has been long in the works since the time of the PlayStation Portable. Licensing issues at the time meant the concept was shelved in favour of Lumines , a nonetheless excellent substitute. But with his studio Enhance, which has already given us the sublime Rez Infinite, it’s good fortune that the idea has been revisited with the latest tech.
Simply put, this is the most beautiful Tetris game we’ve ever seen. The production values are insanely off the charts – at a glance, you wouldn’t even think this was for a puzzle game but the visuals for a headline act at Coachella or Ultra Music Festival.
That’s no throwaway comparison because music is truly integral to Tetris Effect’s campaign. Journey Mode is essentially a concept album that takes you through 27 kaleidoscopic stages and diverse soundscapes, from electronic bangers to primal drum beats, hip-hop bars to piano jazz.
If you’ve played Mizuguchi’s past games then stage progression will feel familiar, and it would be tempting to say these stages are just prettier versions of ‘skins’ from Lumines. But the execution here is on another plane.
Moving, rotating, and dropping blocks trigger their own unique sound effects – a vocal, a drumbeat, a handclap – making you both player and conductor.
All the while you’re clearing lines, both the songs and environments evolve dynamically. From the pitch black of a quiet seabed, you’re suddenly looking down at the Earth, as an ethereal space whale swims around you, while, in another majestic stroke, a scorching windy desert transforms into the Moon’s calm surface before you’re dropped back in the sea, guided by a school of dolphins. They’re pure fever dreams of destinations and memories.
We’d be spoiling to say more, but there’s simply no shortage of ideas, realised to astounding effect. We get misty-eyed just thinking of these breathtaking visions conjured up in front of us, whether in crisp 4K and HDR on a PS4 Pro or utterly enveloped in VR.
In fact, this is by far the most emotional journey we’ve ever had in a video game since, well, Journey. It turns out that falling blocks really can make you cry.
If your last experience of Tetris was on Game Boy, you’ll want to get up to speed on some of the later mechanics in the series. For instance, you can hold and swap out blocks, as well as hard-drop pieces for a snappier pace of play. There’s even exploits like rotating certain shapes into otherwise impossible spaces or spinning a piece endlessly before it sets into place, the latter coming very handy when the game gets faster.
That said, this isn’t your average Tetris where things speed up the more lines you clear. You’re on a journey with its own arc and tempo, so a serene moment of hula drumming suddenly trebles its BPM as does the falling speed of blocks, while it can mellow back down in other cases. Zen may be the overall mood but Tetris Effect still puts you on an emotional rollercoaster.
This is where its party trick comes into play. As you clear more lines, you’ll fill up a Zone meter. Activate it, and suddenly the beat fades and time stops, giving players a well-needed breather to freely place and drop pieces until the meter runs out.
It’s also a boon for showboaters to maximise their score. Because when you’re in the Zone, it actually totals up the lines you’ve cleared for that duration, so you’re no longer just clearing a Tetris, but you can go up as high as the ridiculous-sounding Decahexatris (ie. 16 lines) or all the way to the top of the screen with 20 lines.
You could call it the game’s own bullet-time. Whether you use it as a novice or a grandmaster, the feeling of being like Neo in the Matrix (or should we say Matris?) is a delirious rush.
We could happily play Journey Mode over and over, but that’s just a small slice of the package. Effect Mode opens you up to a wealth of other options, from the classic Marathon, Spring, Ultra and Master modes, as well as more chilled variants for casual players.
But the real fun comes from the challenges of Focus and Adventurous modes, which train you to think about more advanced ways of playing Tetris with different rulesets. The highlight is aptly named Mystery mode, which is like playing Marathon mode while getting hit by all kinds of status abnormalities in an RPG. These range from minor rule restrictions to your next piece suddenly inflating in size – or how about having to play the game upside down, with inverted controls!
If there’s any downside, it’s the lack of multiplayer, as head-to-head battling feels rather out of step with the game’s zen philosophy, though there are still online leaderboards for the competitive-minded.
Instead, regular weekend events encourage cooperation between players to participate in select Effect modes, which contribute to a community target, whereby reaching it within the 24-hour time limit rewards everybody with a unique avatar.
Whether that’s enough to keep active players in the long term is anybody’s guess, but you can’t fault Enhance’s vision of instilling a sense of community and connectedness in a game that can feel solitary in nature. You can even see other player avatars orbiting the Earth as well as their color-coded mood based on what they’re playing that moment in time.
There’s also a bonus if you do have a spare controller. Since haptic feedback is equally important to the game’s synesthesia, you can sync this and put that extra vibration to use *anywhere* you like (the Rez Trance Vibrator lives on).
Is Tetris Effect any good?
Mizuguchi’s games have always been ahead of their time. The original Rez always felt suited to VR but was released long before the technology could become feasible, while Lumines was borne out of not being to obtain the Tetris licence.
Coming full circle, Tetris Effect feels like a culmination of all his work in synesthesia this millennium arriving in its final star child form.
In short, Tetris Effect is a resounding masterpiece, an audiovisual magnum opus, a classic puzzler enhanced beyond all expectations. And while it’s perfectly playable on a flat screen, we’ve also never been so entranced inside a PSVR headset for hours on end, headphones in, staring at those beautiful blocks, and losing all sense of time.
Yes, we still have to pinch ourselves when we realise this is a Tetris game we’re talking about. But this is truly Tetris like you’ve never played or felt before, and the blissful escape we all need in 2018. Because when the real world is full of chaos, Tetris Effect, much like the psychological phenomenon the game takes its name from, is about finding order in things, and taking back control.