Tetris Effect is a game with a pitch that either sounded like the daftest idea ever or something that made perfect sense. Think about it: “Rez developer does Tetris”. On the one hand, this is an update of a game that dates back to the 80s and could be probably played on any modern portable electronic device, yet said update has been given an audiovisual upgrade so lavish – including support for the PSVR headset – that it verges on pretentious arty garbage. On the other hand, Enhance Games have made some of the most mesmerising gaming experiences in recent generations, and Tetris itself is a game that can be quite entrancing when you’re eager for one more go at level 9 high 5 but you don’t realise that you started playing three or four hours ago. In short, it’s a pitch so daft that it might just work.
For the most part, the presentational polish does what it’s supposed to do. The main campaign, Journey Mode, takes you through several self-contained challenges where you must clear a certain amount of lines to move on. Each challenge introduces you to a new “theme” with its own unique background, music track and flashy effects that trigger when the player does well. As the player closes in on their line target, they pass certain milestones that amp up the effects and music for a bit of variety; consequently, the desire to see what comes next provides incentive to play well. Play itself has a mixture of old and new – you can move and rotate blocks, you can instantly drop them by pushing up, you have ample time to adjust a block’s positioning before it “lands”, and you can “hold” a block in reserve if you’re planning a particular setup. However, a couple of key features elevate Tetris Effect above the average block-spinning effort.
Beyond the Zone of Tetris Effect
I feel like the feature that everyone raved about during the pre-release previews was the “zone” state; by clearing lines you build up a zone meter, and when this is full you can activate the zone state, where time will slow and “cleared” lines will be frozen at the bottom of the well – once the meter runs dry, all frozen lines will disappear, allowing you to clear more than the usual four lines. It’s a smart feature that incentivises clever setups as players push the system further to see how many lines they can clear at once, and it invites risk-reward play as you’re torn between setting up a 16-line “Decahexatris” or giving yourself more room in the play area. However, there was something else that stood out to me more as I played through the campaign; something that goes hand-in-hand with Enhance’s desire to create emotive and engaging experiences…
Since Journey Mode gives you a target number of lines to clear for each challenge, Enhance Games knew that the game couldn’t just start you at Level 0 speed with each challenge, because the gameplay experience would feel the same from one challenge to the next. That’s why some challenges start fast, and others start fast but slow down, or vice versa. Some areas have you polishing one challenge off at a sensible speed before the next one ramps things up immediately. This enhances (no pun intended) the experience more than anything – you don’t know what’s going to happen to the speed once you hit the next milestone so you’re hurriedly trying to keep things as tidy as possible. Now, Tetris games have been around for decades, and jumps /drops in speed have probably been done in many clones or game modes… but it feels so much more appropriate here. Tetris Effect sees Enhance Games acting as the conductor, setting a pace for you to follow and then either winding down to an intermission or building up to a crescendo. Finally, that daft premise in the opening paragraph makes sense. This wasn’t merely about slapping some particle dolphins into an old Gameboy game; this was about tapping into the core of Tetris – “do the thing… now do it faster” – and turning that slowly escalating tension into a more varied emotional voyage. What begins as complacency turns into mild panic and ends up as cautious preparation until, finally, you tame the monster that your misplaced blocks had created.
Playing devil’s advocate to my own praise, this rollercoaster of tempo can prove frustrating at first if you’re trying to save yourself from disaster and a speed boost comes at the worst moment, but you quickly learn the cues and timing of each song and discover when you should start preparing for the worst. There are only a few “milestones” where the speed alters in each challenge of Journey Mode so it’s not long before you’re ready for whatever will be thrown at you, and perseverance makes the final successful run all the more satisfying.
Tetris Effect – an easy purchase for fans
Outside of Journey Mode are a few gameplay variants that impose time limits, line limits, speed tweaks, combo challenges and more – you can also enjoy themed “playlists” that have predetermined stages for you to play through, and playing most of the modes allows you to level up and unlock new avatars for your player profile. Some players may be disappointed at the lack of any multiplayer modes, but it’s difficult to see how that might work with the game’s transforming visuals and music. And, of course, you can play the game with virtual reality enhancements if you use the PSVR headset – it may only result in particles being thrown at your face rather than the screen, but closing off outside distractions could potentially result in a more immersive gameplay experience for players.
If you enjoy Tetris and are a fan of Enhance Games’ previous output, Tetris Effect is the easiest purchasing decision you’ll make this year. If you’re a veteran from the Game Boy era, there’s plenty to challenge you here. Even if you like Enhance Games’ work but struggle with high-level Tetris, there are various difficulty settings and gameplay variants that can keep you entertained. That original pitch may not have been so daft after all…
Tetris Effect is available now for PS4. PSVR is supported but optional. You can visit the official website here.