Tetris, for the past three-and-a-half decades, has been a game about a cold, uncaring rain of puzzle pieces. Blocky shapes drip down a dark column and must be flipped and arranged into complete horizontal rows that are then removed from play. You lose if the shapes reach the top of the screen. While the original versions of the game inspired stress or excitement due to its clever and elegant design, the presentation was usually unemotional.
But what if Tetris could make you … feel blissful? Tetris Effect, named for the phenomenon in which repetitive tasks infest our dreams and memories, takes the game’s original concepts and adds joy, connection and audiovisual euphoria. It’s Tetris, but beautiful.
Tetris Effect’s emotional trek weaves through a campaign known as the Journey. Developer Enhance Games sets rounds of Tetris against a variety of gorgeous backdrops, songs and sound effects. The Journey ventures from the deep sea, where blue whales and schools of fish made of glittering particles orbit the Tetris playfield, to deserts to deep space and beyond. The music throbs in time with the movement of play, with every twist or drop of a piece adding to the song. Firework displays burst forth each time you clear a line or two or three or four.
I recognize the game offers an elaborate, possibly emotionally manipulative trick. Dazzling lights and pulsating vibrations and soothing music combine for an experience that’s more than the sum of its parts. It can make you feel something without necessarily having to say something.
But it’s an expertly crafted trick, honed over the course of producer Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s other games: Rez, Lumines and Child of Eden. Each release, sometimes with later remixes, sequels or ports to virtual reality, explored the challenge of connecting with the player by merging play with music, the rumbling of the controller and visual effects. Other games might show you something amazing, but Enhance wants to make games where “something amazing” consists of a visual aesthetic that’s perfectly in tune with each game’s mechanics, sound effects, music and haptics.
Mizuguchi and his team’s craft is at its apex in Tetris Effect. Sound director Noboru Mutoh’s wildly varied original music and sound artist Takako Ishida’s audio effects combine beautifully and flow naturally as you turn, drop and clear Tetris blocks. Tetriminos glisten in time with their beats, and the speed of puzzles ramps up and down within each level to match the musical transitions. Tetris Effect doesn’t simply become faster as the game progresses, each level or series or levels during the Journey plays with tempo in a way that feels more like a mixtape than a linear progression. It’s thrilling.
While the puzzle-solving component remains remarkably similar to the Tetris that programmer Alexey Pajitnov created in 1984, Tetris Effect’s Journey mode adds an all-new layer to strategy called the Zone. As I cleared lines, particularly four-line Tetrises, a meter that powers the Zone fills up. It’s part high-level scoring mechanic, part escape hatch. Triggering the Zone makes it easier to clear lines, as time stops while you move pieces, and you get bonus points for each line or series of lines you clear while in the Zone. It’s an intriguing new addition to the Tetris formula.
The Journey takes only a few hours to complete, but it is dense with memorable moments I wanted to repeat. In some levels, I felt a tactile connection to the puzzle blocks themselves. Blocks were visually represented as gears, the crystals of a chandelier and many other things. Some levels provide clicking or tinkling sounds as you move pieces, while others sound like feet crunching through packed snow or shuffling through sand. Some levels are more traditionally musical, evoking jazz piano or percussion instruments. Each level is a complete package, where all the visual and auditory elements work in lock-step.
The game’s ultimate level is a hallucinogenic trip, where a rainbow of sparkling lights overwhelms the screen — and, at times can become so intense, can obscure the view of important puzzle details.
Beyond the stylish Journey mode lies the Effect mode, a series of puzzle game types that vary from more traditional scoring modes (Marathon, Sprint, etc.) to the more experimental. The oddest is a series of elaborate rule-breaking gimmicks known as Mystery mode, during which the playfield can flip upside-down or helpful visual cues become invisible.
But some of the best Effect game types highlight the venerable addictiveness of Tetris. I’m currently obsessed with Purify, a mode in which you have to clear individual “infected” blocks before the disease can spread. I have only achieved an “A” rank here, and the promise of higher “S” and “SS” ranks torment me.
But Tetris Effect isn’t simply a game about pattern optimization and reflex-based puzzle solving. It excels at being an experience, one that I will argue is best played on its easiest difficulty level to enjoy untainted by the bitter taste of a “game over.” I enjoy the challenge of perfecting a run, but Tetris Effect resonates more deeply than its high score-oriented roots.
The game doesn’t make you choose, to its credit. There are modes and rules you can put in place that will challenge your skills, and others that will let you sit back and enjoy the audio-visual feast. Or you can find a happy medium in the many pre-packaged modes, challenges and options that can be toggled on or off. You can focus on musical and visual combinations that you love, and you can remove those that you don’t by making your own playlists.
Above all, what I love about Tetris Effect is that it is unabashedly earnest. It is a captivating, beautiful thing to experience in a bleak time. It speaks Tetris, the common tongue of video game design, as poetry.
Tetris Effect was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 using a final “retail” download code provided by Enhance Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
Article credit: https://www.polygon.com/reviews/2018/11/9/18079222/tetris-effect-review-ps4-psvr