The effect for which the latest Tetris title Tetris Effect is named is one that I’m very familiar with. It refers to the sort of image burn that can exist when you spend a lot of time immersing yourself with something. Specifically, this happened to people when playing Tetris for long hours. Once away from the game or sleeping, they’d report “seeing” these blocks in their minds while doing other things. Remarkably, this was even true for people with memory issues. Certain games I’ve played as a kid or even now have stuck with me more than others, and invaded my away from keyboard/controller life. I’d imagine where I could make portals with the Portal gun to get from one place to the next, or I’d find myself having vivid Bioshock dreams.
I don’t think there could be a more appropriate name for this iteration of Tetris. Like its namesake, it’s an interesting and mostly pleasant phenomenon, and an interesting conversation piece. Tetris Effect is heavier on Effect than Tetris, specifically designed to be an immersive experience. It has a sort of Burning Man Tetris feel that’s much better appreciated when playing it in VR. As an experience, it soars. It’s an immersive, colorful, beautiful world, if pretentious on some level. As Tetris, it’s slightly less successful, but definitely innovative, without totally reinventing a classic. As a VR title, it excels, being one of the few games that’s truly miles better in a virtual reality setting.
I spent the first few hours of Tetris Effect playing it on a PS4 on the big-screen, and had a very love/hate relationship with the game. I felt like it was the equivalent of playing Tetris while being a stay-at-home mom to 3 hyperactive toddlers, with what felt like gratuitous particle effects, lighting changes and musical beats vying for my attention when i was just trying to clear lines. Everything felt like it was in my face, and was detracting from the experience of actually playing Tetris, a game that I’ve loved for years. It only seemed to make things harder, and I found myself wondering why anyone played Tetris when it was so damn stressful. I found the New Age spa vibe of the music and the visuals compounded my anger at the dissonance between my stress level and this “experience” that was supposed to be so pastoral and mind-blowing.
Then, to make sure I had the full experience in writing the review, I donned the Daft Punk-esque PSVR headset and went at Tetris Effect again. Having spent so long frustrated with it, I couldn’t believe how quickly the negative feelings towards the game changed. VR truly changed everything. Instead of those pesky particles and light changes seeming so in my face, they were in my peripherals, set away from the Tetris board. In surround sound, the music seemed less annoying and more encouraging. I found, much to my surprise, that I felt relaxed, and was finding a flow to it all that I just hadn’t been able to hook on to before. In short, I wasn’t mad at Tetris Effect anymore. The VR experience was able to immerse me fully, actually helping me focus and allowing me to enjoy what had seemed like simply a distraction.
Gameplay for Tetris Effect isn’t particularly groundbreaking. You’re able to play under two main categories, with more modes available as sort of subcategories. In Journey mode, you’ll move in a sort of linear pattern through sets of areas to “beat” the game. There’s a practice level you can work out your jitters in and three difficulty settings, but you’ll be sure to find a challenge even at the beginner level, as Tetris Effect never dumbs down the gameplay for relaxation’s sake. Each area consists of at least 3 different levels, and once you reach the required lines cleared, you’ll immediately start the next level until you’re done with the area and a final grade is given. In Effects mode, you’re able to choose what you’re in the mood for, with a few playlists covering the different feels to levels, with available Marathon, Endless, Sprint and Ultra modes familiar to many longtime Tetris devotees, as well as a Chill mode if you’re just looking to destress a little. In the Effects menu, you’ll also find leaderboards and community challenges, which will allow you to see where you rank and participate in different challenges to unlock different rewards, like rare avatars.
One new aspect to the world of Tetris is the addition of the Zone mechanic. As you clear lines in levels you play, you’ll notice a meter filling up on the left side of your Tetris board. When the meter’s full to Max, you can engage Zone mode. This stops time in the game (which can be a godsend considering how devilishly fast some levels get) and allows you to place blocks as you please until your Zone time is over and the regular gameplay resumes. This is great if you’re in a really tight spot and managed to fill your meter, or to really add to your score, as it makes it possible for you to get a “dodecatris” by clearing 12 lines at once in Zone mode. It’s a fun addition and can really change the game for you by pulling you out of a tight spot or allowing for some true power moves.
Unfortunately, sometimes the gameplay in Tetris Effect seems inconsistent. This is most apparent when trying to turn tetrominos. While sometimes, you can get yourself out of a bind by quick-turning blocks to fix your mistake, other times trying the same thing will get you nowhere. In addition, sometimes quick drop seemed to activate out of nowhere just about the time you were trying to surgically place something to get out of trouble.
Artistically, though, Tetris Effect is gorgeous. This is as true for the sound effects and music as it is for the visuals. Great care was taken on the part of developers to make every sound impactful, from the crisp crunch of snowpack to the hollow timbre of wood blocks. The music is always in perfect sync with the gameplay, even responding to how you interact with tetrominos, and builds the further in the level you get. You might only hear a few ambient sounds to begin with, but by the end of the level you’ll have a fully realized track with vocals to nod your head to.
The visuals build in much the same way–slow and perhaps even monotone at first, filling in detail and adding more and more color as you go. About halfway through each level, drastic changes happen, with deserts turning to moonscapes or cities beginning to take shape. It’s truly gorgeous and enjoyable. Everything sparkles, pulses and moves to the rhythm, and it’s easy to become entranced with. Sometimes the way the sound and art work together is truly magnificent–my favorite example being a jazzy cityscape level, where tetraminos make a deliciously clanky piano sound and as the tune fills out, a glossy city lights up and explodes into color.
Overall, Tetris Effect succeeds. It might be trying really hard to be a sort of deep artistic experience, but I can’t entirely fault it for trying. While I don’t think it’s at its best solely as Tetris on a big screen, I do think it’s truly special when you’re in VR, and I heavily recommend that you play it in VR if you have the choice. With a sort of EDM/Chillout vibe and esoteric,New Age visuals, it can be a very relaxing space to find yourself in, while at the same time a little too much with its pseudo-tribal zen overdose aura. That said, once you get in lockstep with what Tetris Effect is trying to do, you’ll find the game hard to put down and really fun to play, with plenty of reasons to come back to it later, which in my mind makes it an overall success.
Tetris Effect is available now on PS4.
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