A wise person over at The Tetris Company assumedly had a bold dream: "What if Lumines, but Tetris?" The dream came true, with the new PlayStation 4 (with PlayStation VR support) game Tetris Effect, developed by Resonair and published by Enhance Inc. It also has a familiar name behind all the glitz: legendary game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi.
Tetris Effect is Tetris, only with a glossy palette of familiar aesthetics from Mizuguchi's catalogue: the nature of Child of Eden, the club-thumping puzzling of Lumines, the splendor of Area X in Rez Infinite, and so on. Packed altogether, it ends up feeling like a celebration of Tetris, arguably the greatest puzzle game of all time. Sometimes, the blend of stunning visuals, toe-tapping rhythms, and sweeping compositions singing about togetherness even feels profound.
There are parts of Tetris Effect that had me thinking that this was the greatest version of Tetris to exist. (Probably uncoincidentally, these moments happened during the many hours I spent playing it in VR.) Then there were other times where it fell into the trap of style over substance, where it was hard to differentiate the tetrominoes falling down because they weren't in the typical blocks; and also, aren't color-coded, aside from a handful of Classic modes in the "Effects" section.
The latter is the root of my hang-ups with Tetris Effect, amidst all the ooing and aweing I instinctively did. Tetris Effect scraps the color-coding, and does away with the traditional blocks we're used to in favor of something that's always shifting per level (from glistening cubes to tiny gears). Largely, it works out. Other times, the blocks aren't perfectly defined shapes, and as a result it's harder to differentiate what a shape even is. I chalk this up partly to being woefully nearsighted, and given that Tetris Effect's playing field is all about giving the player depth, the Tetris map always felt like it was about one foot too far away for me to see clearly.
But in VR, that problem is remedied. The depth of the Tetris field looks a lot closer, and part of Tetris Effect's, well, effect in VR is that it's completely absorbing. Even as particles and animals and other things move around you, sometimes in rhythm with how you turn a tetromino, your mind is still narrowly focused on the thing right in front of you: Tetris. It's absorbing to play in VR, adding to PlayStation VR's short list of excellent unexpected games for virtual reality like SuperHyperCube and Rez Infinite, of course.
Tetris Effect's landmark mode is "Journey," which is something like a campaign, only it has no dialogue or story. Instead, you navigate a solar system and play through sets of songs and visuals that have a natural flow and progression to them. As you play, the background evolves, as does the pace. Some might be centered on nature, where others may have a pointed cultural theme—on both fronts, the music and visuals commit in harmony to whatever a level's "theme" is. If you get into a good mindset, you can cruise through a set without ever having to restart. Luckily on Normal (and worry not, there is a higher and easier difficulty too) if you flounder, you don't have to restart the entire set of levels over, only the one you were on at that moment, such as the third level in a four-level suite.
New to Tetris is Journey's "Zone" mechanic, which is buildable in a meter on the bottom left of your playing field. With Zone, time basically stops and the music slows to a hum as you try to clear as many lines as you can before the meter runs out. You don't have to have the Zone meter maxed out to use it, but it is more useful at that point as you get more time to clear lines without the pressure of fast-dropping tetrominoes. Using Zone can be the make it or break it moment that may otherwise end in a game over—I found it particularly useful when my playing field was about half full, to elongate a session.
Journey mode is also no cake walk, despite Tetris Effect's huge focus on seemingly being a chill Tetris. In the back half of Journey mode's levels, there is no easing into the beat; there is no progression that gets harder with time and feels fair. Instead, levels start out so fast that you can barely comprehend what's happening. For instance, in the last level of the mode, it took me hours to clear the 90 lines it required, with many retries. When I finally toppled it, I felt like I saw God. It was a cathartic feeling, but also a strenuous one. For being a game about how Tetris (and by extension games and music) connects the world, it felt like a bit much to make me feel like I was having a brain aneurysm for a solid seven-or-so minute stretch.
It's where Tetris Effect finds itself conflicted. There's the Tetris that is sanctioned relaxation time, and the Tetris that feels like it's out to overload your brain. The in between of that is where Tetris Effect hits its note the best—where it's challenging at a steady pace and beautiful, all at once. Luckily, among its many "Effects" modes, there is plenty to placate whatever sort of Tetris you want; most notably with difficulty that feels fair and earned (and is customizable), rather than misplaced at the first stir of a level no matter your skill level.
The Effects modes are the second tab away from Journey. Instead of a threaded set of Tetris maps, each mode serves a clear purpose. In the Classics section, you have the traditional Marathon, Ultra, Sprint, and Master modes. Of them, Ultra's my personal favorite, where you race to get as high of a score that you can in three minutes. The music's great for this particular mode too. Classic is also where color-coded blocks return.
Yet Relax, I venture, will be the section that gets the most play from people. In all its modes (Chill Marathon, Quick Play, Playlist: Sea, Playlist: Wind, Playlist: World), there is no possibility of a game over. If you screw up and cap out at the top, it simply erases and you start over with an empty slate, as if nothing happened. The song goes onward too. Focus (All Clear, Combo, Target) and Adventurous (Countdown, Purify, Mystery) modes are where things get a little more creative. I clicked with Mystery the most, where different effects either screw you over, or improve your play. In it, the Tetris map might be flipped upside down, or maybe a giant block will appear. In Mystery, you never know what annoyance is going to pop up next, which makes for a fun challenge.
In my first few hours with Tetris Effect, I meandered through Journey's opening level-sets and was wowed by the amazing soundtrack (largely produced by Mizuguchi himself, according to the credits—the man's always had an ear for perfect music). And yet, it wasn't really clicking with me until I yanked out my entertainment center, re-set-up and dusted off my PlayStation VR, and put on the headset. Suddenly, as dolphins ebbed and flowed and particles swirled around me, I got it. Everything clicked. It's still Tetris, but it's Tetris with something to say; Tetris that brings together the beauty all around us, from jazzy piano-led cityscapes to a celebration of other cultures. It may have those imperfections of parts that feel incongruent, but at the end, I'll come away thinking of that moment where it all fell into place for me, like hard-dropping a tetromino into the perfect spot.
Sometimes Tetris Effect dances into the profound: wherein the music, the visuals, and the act of playing Tetris can make you—dare I say it—emotional. Then there's the other side of Tetris Effect, the tedium with instant-fast speeds and hard-to-discern tetrominos in more than just a few levels. Tetris Effect is at its best when it's just normal Tetris, with no strange shapes for blocks; with just the music and visuals to help you drift away as you fall into a flow. In PlayStation VR, that effect is only leveraged, making it a must-own game for the virtual reality platform.