Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed)
There are two types of Tetris player. The first, the vs player, grew up with two player Tetris. He usually focuses on damage control, clearing lines quickly and creating patterns of junk that screw over his opponent. Most recent Tetris games cater to this player, layering on new mechanics and modes and turning the puzzle experience into more of a fighting game.
Then there’s the solo player, the original Tetris player, the player who grew up playing Tetris on the NES, Gameboy, or home computer. There is no opponent for this player, just a constant drive for perfection. They want to see how many tetrises they can score in a row, how perfect of a stack they can build before clearing it all. They care about their score. They care about efficiency. They care about losing themselves in the Tetris experience.
While most modern Tetris games are not geared toward the solo player there has been a recent resurgence in solo play communities. The Classic Tetris World Championship or CTWC brought NES Tetris players together to see who can max out their score most efficiently. Events like AGDQ and SGDQ brought Tetris speedrunners together to show off Tetris the Grand Master and this showcase eventually ended up crowning the very first American grand master Tetris player.
All of this hype surrounding single-player Tetris has culminated in Tetris Effect, the latest Tetris release exclusively for PS4, and it is an oddity. It too is built for the solo player who looks to achieve Tetris perfection. However, unlike other types of Tetris who just give you the game and say go for it, Tetris Effect remixes the Tetris experience into something of an emotional narrative. There aren’t new mechanics or funky rules here and yet Tetris Effect still manages to do creative and innovative things with the Tetris formula that we have never seen before. It’s such an incredibly unique experience that I had to write a three paragraph about the Tetris community, just to show you why it’s so unique.
Feel the beat
Tetris Effect is the brainchild of Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the man behind games such as REZ and Child of Eden. For those unfamiliar with his works, Mizuguchi is obsessed with developing synesthetic experiences. Both REZ and Child of Eden were rail shooters set to trippy electronic music. As you locked on and shot your enemies, different instruments would play adding layers to the background song. As you progressed the song would become more and more complex, to the extent that you felt you were conducting the music. This was coupled with a psychedelic background that also changed and pulsed as you played the game. REZ even came with a “trance vibrator” to allow you to “feel” the music, and Child of Eden had an entire vibrating suit accessory!
Tetris Effect is just that formula pasted on to Tetris. It turns the single-player experience of Tetris into a synesthetic experience with something of an emotional narrative to it.
So here’s the scenario. You start in a black void with the familiar Tetris well ahead of you. Moving your piece causes a series of familiar clicks, beeps, and boops, like any other Tetris game. You build up some lines and clear them and your line-clear creates a deep bassy thud. Clear a couple more lines, and those thuds start to come in again, more rhythmically. Clear a couple more and you notice your beeps and boops start altering their pitch to sound more harmonic, and when you rotate your pieces you get an entirely different sound effect that sounds like a real instrument.
The black void you are in has now started to pulse with soft blue light and fractal patterns begin to emerge from it. Your pieces look like more than just squares. They now look like shimmering three dimensional blocks of glass and when you clear lines they shatter. The bass is thumping harder. Your movements are now causing complex chords and combinations of instruments to play. It’s like you are in a night club, the screen flashing at you, the music pounding in your ears, edging you on to get your next four line clear.
Then you do and suddenly everything goes quiet. The music fades out into a soft ambient electronica from its previous hard-thumping techno. Your heart was racing, but you now get to take a deep breath. The blue fractal background has changed to a serene visage of a morning sky. Then, your next block drops….
This is just ONE of the scenarios in Tetris Effect, and if it was only a shiny coat of paint and kicking soundtrack posted over Tetris it would be easy to pass off as a quick Tetris cash-in but the blocks actually drop with narrative coherence and this is what makes you feel as if these scenarios have meaning.
In the scenario I posted above, the pieces fall progressively faster until you transition into the more serene scenery, where they would then start to fall slower. You would actually feel the serene nature of your environment because you suddenly have a break from pieces that are dropping at insane speeds. This is Tetris Effect’s major gimmick, and it uses it to great effect.
There are stages in which you sit around a fire, a tribal chant growing in intensity as the blocks drop faster. There are stages that start you at an absurd speed, allowing you to build your own stack of doom only to switch back to the lowest speed possible, asking you to methodically clear it to some calming beats. There are stages themed around experimental jazz where the speed increased and decreases sporadically as you watch the hustle and bustle of the big city pass by in the background.
It’s a game that made me feel emotional highs and lows, panic and relief and all I was doing was playing Tetris!
It’s for this reason that Tetris Effect is best played with a PSVR headset. The game is fully playable and incredibly enjoyable outside of virtual reality. However, inside virtual reality you can move your head around the well to gaze at your changing surroundings. There’s even an option that lets you synch a second controller to the beat of the music or the sound of your surroundings and use that as a makeshift “REZ Trance Vibrator” letting you further feel the Tetris experience.
So many ways to zone out
Most of Tetris Effect is wrapped up in journey mode, which is essentially the game’s campaign mode. It tasks you with playing small groups of these themed stages, chasing a high score, better letter grade, and placement on the online leaderboards.
Journey mode only has one new mechanic, “The Zone.” By clearing lines you will fill up your zone meter, and by pulling a trigger on the controller activate The Zone. Here, pieces will slow down for a limited time while the music becomes muted and falls into the background. In addition, clearing a line won’t remove it; it will just send it to the bottom of the stack. This allows you to clear more than four lines at a time, shooting for absurd line-clears like the 12 line Dodecatris, or the 20 line Ultimatris.
But even with this new mechanics, all you are really doing is playing Tetris, the same old Tetris that you knew and loved from the Gameboy days.
You’d think that this might get old, but you would be wrong. Journey mode comes in many different difficulties which require you to clear more lines between stages and introduce more intense speed shifts into the equation. You can also customize your experience by choosing how many pieces you can see in your preview window, choosing whether you can hold pieces, and even choosing if you can use “the zone.”
Even if the journey gets boring, there are a number of different modes to choose from themed around the emotion that they evoke. “Focus” modes are intense sessions of high speed drops while “relax” modes are super easy modes that just allow you to take in your surroundings. “Adventurous” modes will actually give you some new rules, screwing with your physics or pieces in weird ways, and if all of this isn’t to your liking, you can head over to classic mode and play the original Tetris with the original Tetris rules.
Too pretty for its own good
It’s not a flawless package however. Sometimes, it’s sound and visual design can be too enthralling for its own good. The warping backgrounds and exploding particle effects can block your view, which can mean certain death on high speed stages. Luckily there are options to turn most of these off and in VR the effect is not nearly as bad, but without them Tetris Effect loses what makes it so enjoyable in th first place.
Tetris Effect also completely lacks any sort of two player mode. While it’s clear that the game wasn’t designed for more competitive Tetris players, it would have been nice to be able to bring a friend along on this feast for the eyes and ears.
You’ve never felt Tetris like this
This is actually why I’m convinced that Tetris Effect is worth your time. You see, I’m not a solo Tetris player. My favorite Tetris is Tetris Battle Gaiden which is as confrontational as it gets. If I’m not stomping someone into the ground, then Tetris holds no interest for me.
Except Tetris Effect kept me playing for hours. I’d start up sessions before bed and suddenly find that I had played till five in the morning. I’d fail stages over and over again only to hop right back in, charged by the music blaring in the background. This is game that put a stupid smile on my face when I transitioned out of a desert and on to the surface of the moon, dropping blocks the whole time. Tetris Effect got its emotional hooks in me and it will do the same to you.
So if you are looking for the next evolution of Tetris, then look no further. This is the definitive way to play solo Tetris and will be for a while. It’s well worth the $40 price tag, even more so if you can experience it in PSVR.