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Tetris Effect Review — More Than a Simple Building Block

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Tetris Effect _4K_keyart

The first version of Tetris was created by Russian developer Alexey Pajitnov in 1984. Since then, a bewildering number of variants on the concept have arisen, but in essence, it remains a puzzle game where the object is to make lines disappear by slotting together blocks. How, then, does such a simplistic concept translate into virtual reality (VR)?

Tetris Effect was created by Tetsuya Mizuguchi and Enhance Inc, who previously worked on similarly psychedelic puzzle titles Rez, Rez Infinite, and Lumines. The title continues the aesthetic and design sensibilities of Rez Infinite, which likewise had a VR mode, but turns everything up to 11 in order to turn Tetris Effect into something of a transcendent experience.

Tetris Effect takes its name from a recognised phenomenon where players who engaged in lengthy sessions of Tetris would find they were still seeing the moving block shapes even after shutting off the console, as if the game had printed itself on their eyeballs.

The main game mode is the ‘Journey’ mode, which challenges the player to clear a certain number of lines. Doing so will transport the player to the next stage, complete with the transformation of the visual landscape, showcasing such fantastic sights such as a whale made of light, or a surreal flying windmill. The Journey mode takes roughly 2-3 hours to complete, though doing so unlocks other game modes to play around with.

The other game modes can be found by exploring the Effects area, where players can pick a mode that matches the mood they are going for. These modes includes Classic, Focus, Adventurous, or Relax. The game features sub-modes inside these categories as well, such as the Marathon mode inside Classic, which challenges players to clear 150 lines.

Relax is one of the most pleasing modes, offering a gentle ambient playlist and a ‘no fail’ rule that ensures players are not dumped out early. Relax acts as a kind of practice mode, as well as providing a chill experience that is perfect for winding down after a tough day.

Fans of VR often talk about the immersion of the experience, which is one of the defining, and most appealing, characteristics of VR. On the surface, a timeless puzzle game like Tetris does not seem like an obvious candidate for the VR treatment, but in fact it works incredibly well. Players will quickly find themselves totally absorbed in a world of colour, sound, and falling blocks. The outside world entirely falls away as the Tetris Effect takes hold.

The core Tetris gameplay is present and correct, but the game has a couple of additions, such as the ‘Hold’ function, which lets players store a piece for later use – like saving those vital straight pieces, or tucking away an inconvenient block that does not currently fit. This function adds a new dimension, but the concept has been in quite a few modern Tetris titles. The other innovation is the Zone state, which involves filling up a meter by clearing lines, until the player is able to freeze time and rack up some unbelievable line clears, like the ‘Ultimatris’ twenty-line clear.

Graphically, the game is spectacular; the lighting and particle effects all look amazing, and the animated backgrounds are sufficiently beautiful as to be a distraction from the gameplay (in a good way). The transitions between levels are mesmerising, and when the player start to explore the other gameplay modes, things start to get even more impressive.

Of course, one of the main draws for Tetris Effect is the soundtrack. The music synchronises with the gameplay in a way that players of Lumines will find familiar, though the addition of VR and 3D sound incorporates an extra dimension to it all that really adds to the feeling of being immersed in a different universe. The sounds change in time to each spin and drop, giving the player the feeling that they have a hand in controlling the music.

The soundtrack ranges from pulse-pounding to ambient chill, with genres spanning electronica to trance and even jazz. The sound has some fun little touches here and there as well, such as a level where the shapes become stuck together snowballs, and the sound effects change to sound like crunching snow.

The controls use the DualShock 4 in both VR and non-VR modes, which works excellently. While Tetris Effect still looks and plays wonderfully in non-VR, it is in VR where it really shines, and a world of light and sound comes to life around the player. That said, if playing in VR, a good set of headphones or a solid 5.1 surround sound set-up is an absolute must, as so much about the game involves 3D spatial sound, so much so that losing it seems almost criminal.

Though many people have questioned how exactly one can innovate on Tetris, Mizuguchi and his team at Enhance have drawn upon the experience of creating titles such as Rez Infinite to create a hypnotic experience that draws the player into another world that does its very best to not let them go.

The quality of the visuals, the sound, and the gameplay means this is a title that impresses on almost every level. The only real problems are that the Journey mode could perhaps use with being longer, and some of the Extra modes feel a little bit tacked-on.

Unlike many ‘Optional VR’ games, Tetris Effect thrives in VR, and a PlayStation VR headset is by far the best way of experiencing this game. Tetris Effect is a very polished, absorbing, and beautiful experience, and well worth checking out for anybody who has a PlayStation 4, especially if they also have a PSVR headset.

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 with PlayStation VR.

Review

Etherborn Review — A Brief, Beautiful Defiance of Gravity

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Etherborn

Indie developers in 2019 truly have the freedom to create the games they want. When Fig-funded game Etherborn reached its funding target, developer Altered Matter set out to craft a gravity-shifting puzzle platformer. Players sold on this concept have a lot to look forward to as Altered Matter has delivered on its promise. The mind-bending mechanics of Etherborn force players to approach the world from a new perspective amidst some stunning visual landscapes. 

In Etherborn, the player takes control of a voiceless, newly-born being who follows a bodiless voice in search of meaning. Such a philosophical premise promises an experience that will answer key questions regarding self-identity and the quest for meaning. The answer plays into the age old cliche that we are born to create our own destiny. The game’s narrative discussions around these topics are disappointing, though they do demonstrate that the narrative is less important than the themes behind them. 

Etherborn

One of the biggest frustrations with the story is that the language used complicated the simple message the developer was trying to tell. The soothing yet commanding tone of the omniscient voice would have been enough to carry along a more refined script that served the themes with clarity. Instead, Altered Matter opted to write something poetic by using lots of really big words that sound like they have lots of meaning, which instead detract from the actual meaning. 

Etherborn has a linear structure that takes place across five distinct levels. The levels are completed by solving gravity-defying puzzles to collect light orbs that open the pathway forward. Once all levels are completed, a new game+ mode is unlocked, creating replayability through the additional challenge of new, well-hidden light orb locations. Including this game mode offers players a chance to enjoy a more difficult experience without an additional learning curve. 

What sets Etherborn apart is the unique mechanic that underpins the gameplay. To traverse the landscape, players must jump and use ramps to change their perspective, turning walls into floors to move through the level. The opening level does an exceptional job of introducing the player to how this concept will be manipulated throughout the game. Controls in Etherborn are simple and intuitive, allowing for an experience that focuses the challenge purely within the design. Despite being able to run, the movement speed of the character seems sluggish for the most part, yet can be too fast for easy maneuverability in levels that require finesse to execute. 

Etherborn is deeply beautiful. The soft hues and subtle colour palette create a truly ethereal experience that carries through until the final level where the tone shifts into something somewhat dark, yet utterly breathtaking. Skeletal bodies, frozen in time, dwarf the character to create a visual masterpiece that captivates the viewer. Accompanying the divine art direction is killer sound design that makes the world feel complete. The ambient music creates an atmosphere that indulges in the landscape it calls home in a way that elevates the experience. 

The short length of Etherborn leaves players wanting more. In OnlySP’s preview of the game in 2018, the Alpha build contained the same five levels that are seen in the final game. Having spent so much time on these levels has meant the final product is highly polished yet disappointingly short. The gravity bending puzzles at play are so clever, well designed, and satisfying to complete that a lack of experimentation through more level designs to satiate the player’s hunger for more is disappointing.  

The challenging gameplay, gorgeous sound design, and stunning aesthetics all make Etherborn a worthwhile experience, even for those not fond of puzzle-platformers. Every level demonstrates a craftsmanship that encourages the curiosity to think and engage with the world. Completing puzzles is satisfying, even if the length of the game is not. Some minor issues may crop up along the way, but Etherborn is still a clever, fun game that challenges players and their perspective of the world. 

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch. Also available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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