There are few among us who haven’t heard of Tetris, the surprisingly addictive puzzle video game in which players must move and rotate tetromino pieces in order to form and clear horizontal lines. For years, developers have been crafting their own iterations on this familiar formula, and they almost all feel largely the same. Perhaps that’s why Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the creator of trippy games such as Rez and Lumines, puts so much of the focus of Tetris Effect on literally changing the way people feel, using a variety of audiovisual effects to present an artistic, emotional spin on Tetris.
And yet, the successes of Tetris Effect, named for a condition where people spend so much time doing a particular activity that it begins to pattern their thoughts, come not from such ultimately superficial and distracting flourishes, but from the introduction of a brand new ability. As players clear lines, they’re also charging their Zone gauge, and when they activate this power, they’re able to stop time. It’s a game-changing skill that shakes the foundation of the entire series, allowing masters to massively boost their scores by clearing as many as 20 lines while also re-balancing the game for amateurs who may need an extra advantage to puzzle their way out of a tight spot.
Tetris Effect offers the smoothest, most responsive Tetris experience to date, a definitive single-player package that includes the best improvements in the series’s history, such as the ability to store a single tetromino in a queue and to T-spin shapes into awkward gaps before they lock into place. An Effects Mode offers a wide variety of modifiers to the basic game, from standard speed runs and score attacks to skill-training puzzles that test your ability to quickly All Clear a board or combo together line clears. Master speed, which all but instantaneously drops pieces, makes a return to the franchise here, but now there’s also a “Relax” setting, which presents aesthetically associated levels like “Sea” or “Wind” play without risk of “game over.” And for those who have mastered every aspect of Tetris, there’s the Mystery setting, which throws weird and random rule modifications into the mix; it’s one thing to play on an invisible board, and quite another when that board is flipped upside down, or when the tetrominos take on new and unwieldy or massive shapes.
Would that the game’s emotional offerings made as much sense. Journey Mode, self-billed as “a journey of discovery and emotion,” more closely resembles a Couch to 5K-like training program, one that hides the repetitious work of building Tetrises beneath 27 increasingly challenging levels. Abrupt shifts between high-intensity havoc and slower, soothing tempos give players a chance to recover from the more taxing speeds, just as the varying visual styles—not just for backgrounds, but for pieces—helps with training.
Once you’ve learned to handle confusingly single-colored tetrominos that look like cogs, while simultaneously contending with the sight of windmills in your peripheral vision, it becomes considerably easier to deal with the plainer-looking pieces of a fresh level without so many distracting bells and whistles. But not everyone out there has wondered what it would be like to play Tetris while at a rave, and though it’s fine to include the option to have your pieces pulsate or glow in the dark with purple glitter, or clutter the screen with fireworks or volcanic explosions, there doesn’t appear to be any way to disable the majority of these style-over-substance effects.
Tetris Effect is staggeringly immersive—and also playable in PSVR—but it falls short of justifying its audiovisual ambition as anything more than a novelty, a way to resell one of the oldest video games in the world, now gussied up with high-definition colors and graphical bloom. There’s Tetris, better than ever, in the foreground, but then there’s all these other effects going on in the background—like all those random videos that accompany songs at a cheap karaoke bar. Worse, all the flair that’s been added to the base game lays bare what’s been deliberately and inexplicably left out, like online multiplayer. Mizuguchi has made strong, confident choices with his approach to Tetris, the Zone ability most prominent among them, but he’s done so uncompromisingly. And that’s an effect that’s as likely to leave tetrominos burned into your retinas as it is to simply leave you feeling cold and alone.