Tetsuya Mizuguchi has taken the synesthesia inducing, music-based gameplay that he has distilled through games such as Rez and Lumines and applied it to one of the most popular puzzle games of all time: Tetris. I can confidently say that Tetris Effect is the best version of Tetris to date and will likely go down in history as Mizuguchi’s greatest triumph.
Tetris has a long history in the gaming scene. From the humble beginnings as a PC game shared amongst colleagues to a packed-in Nintendo Game Boy icon, there was one key feature that no one was denying: it was a very addictive game. There was something meditative found in stacking up pieces in columns and then clearing the clutter off the screen. The music — a Russian-fueled ditty that likely is still stuck in many a player’s head — carried on as an iconic theme, instantly springing up thoughts of blocks falling from above as soon as you laid your ears upon it. It was apparent that, as more and more platforms began to carry this unique puzzle game, Tetris’ popularity quickly led to it becoming a household name.
The 2004 Playstation Portable game Lumines was created by Mizuguchi who, after wanting to make a “Tetris with music” game and was unable to secure the licensing to do so, decided to make one himself. Lumines therefore used the square tetrimino found in Tetris as its sole puzzle piece and all other gameplay stemmed from it. Music played in the background of the game, but the sound effects of moving and dropping the puzzle pieces referenced and were timed to the music, making it a natural and flowing experience.
Tetris Effect is Mizuguchi’s evolutionary next step. Beginning with the core game of Tetris, this new game expands upon it with flashy, musically-timed visuals. Particles swirl and pulse all over the screen, forming into animals and shapes one moment and exploding in a splash of color and vibrancy the next. Your controller contributes to this visual buffet in timing its vibrations to what takes place on the screen. The whole experience is surreal and even though the core mechanic of stacking and clearing blocks on a screen is so simple, doing so in a zen-like state with the gorgeous undulations of the scenes playing around the playing field is a transportative affair.
The use of the Playstation VR headset also solidifies the game’s breathtaking visuals. I found myself constantly distracted from the speed and madness of block-stacking to take in the simplicity of the dolphins in a pod, speeding through the ocean, or a jellyfish slowly pulsing away to the beat of the infectious music that sets up each scene. Seated VR games are somewhat of a faux pas in the industry, but Tetris Effect makes a bold counterpoint for the contrary: sometimes you just want to relax and be transported to somewhere else, and that’s not a bad use of VR, in my opinion. 360 degrees of visual bliss is not a bad way to relax after work, after all.
Music in Tetris Effect is the number one thing that could make or break the experience and I was pleasantly surprised to find that every track was amazingly matched to the visuals in that ‘level’. Each area in the ‘Journey mode’ campaign has you playing through a series of environments, each with its own song and visual theme. As you make it through a set number of cleared lines, the music then breaks into a transitional ramp up beat as you are transported to the next level through a portal of swirling particles. Similarly to Rez, the music tracks themselves are broken up into segments. This allows each song to ‘tell a story’ from its intro to its outro and during certain parts of the song, some of the levels even change scenes to further that narrative. It all wraps into that transportative experience and puts you in control of the ride.
There are several ways to play Tetris Effect beyond the main campaign, with ‘Classic’ modes such as Marathon, Ultra and Sprint leaning towards the traditional score-based gameplay from previous games in the series. New modes to the series are categorized into subsets such as Relax, Focus, and Adventurous. Relax focuses on playing with no Game Over, Focus plays towards meeting set targets such as combos, and Adventurous dives into unique mods to gameplay such as the Mystery mode where you are thrown random efforts in an effort to thwart you. Having all these different modes means Tetris Effect can easily be customized to your play style and offers infinite replayability from a game that already has the ‘one more game’ trope going for it. There is no local multiplayer to speak of, but all the modes have a global leaderboard that you can compete against and try to rise to the top.
There’s a brand new mechanic I feel I should touch on that really gels the whole experience together and that’s the ‘Zone’ mechanic. You build up Zone power by doing combinations and when you use the button to activate it, it allows you to stop time and work on clearing as many lines as possible. You can actually achieve an ‘Ultimatris’, which is 20 lines cleared, using this technique. The music sort of filters out and it’s just the sound effects of the blocks moving and dropping and it feels a bit like you stepped into a different, well, ‘zone’ all together. I hope they keep this mechanic in future titles, because it certainly is one of the best features of the game.
Everything about the experience wraps up into a must-have title. The only potential complaint I could have is that the beauty of the backdrops are hard to see when focusing on the dropping blocks, but I see that as more of a compliment than anything. Never before has music wrapped around functionality in such a euphoric way that simply playing the game feels like an experience that you control, and that you are the conductor of limitless unraveling bliss.
Tetris Effect is available now on the Playstation Store and in physical form at your local retailer.