“Won’t it be hard to concentrate?”
That was one of my first thoughts when I heard about Tetris Effect, the latest brainchild of Rez, Lumines and Space Channel 5 creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi. Each of those games blended music, high-concept visual design and responsive gameplay to build hyper-sensory experiences — the repetitive, addictive kind, that lull you into a trance-like state.
But Tetris isn’t a rail shooter like Rez, nor does it have the quick-time-event dancing of Space Channel 5. Tetris Effect in particular hurls much more at your retinas than Lumines ever did. I struggled to fully understand how Tetris — a title that really has no association with music, save for its iconic Russian folk theme — would incorporate auditory stimuli in a way that didn’t feel tacked on. Tetris is probably the closest thing there’s ever been to a “perfect” video game, but a rhythm game it is not.
Tetris meets tunes
Well, it turns out my concerns were unwarranted. Tetris Effect is, at its core, the basic 2D Tetris experience you've known and loved for decades, bolstered with dynamic music and visualizations that take the world's favorite puzzle game to unprecedented heights.
Thankfully, those additions don’t get in the way of my ability to play Tetris — a game I’ve always enjoyed, though never considered myself particularly good at. I always lean toward Puyo Puyo when given a choice in Puyo Puyo Tetris, because I get more satisfaction out of chaining together stacks of cascading blobs than linking up combos clearing successive lines.
But Tetris Effect is different. Linking the pace of gameplay with music makes me a better player. The rhythmic pulsations of the audio in tandem with the ever-changing backgrounds lends context to the commotion. I don’t feel as though I’m haphazardly ping-ponging from wall to wall, hard dropping Tetrominos as fast as I can move my thumbs. I mean, I still am of course, but there’s a sense of purpose. I feel like I’m playing a role in some hallucinogenic orchestra, and missing a beat would deny me a beautiful payoff.
Speaking of a payoff, there’s no better positive reinforcement in Tetris Effect than when a song hits its stride, or when the background reacts in a way you don’t expect.
One of my favorite levels in the game is called Ritual Passions, and happens early on in Journey Mode. The song begins with these metronomic beats, like a ticking stopwatch, before flourishing with quickening bass drum hits amid hypnotic Balinese chants. All the while, lines clear with sweeping flames and humanoid apparitions borne from embers convulse to your every movement.
Once they begin bowing in unison to your block-shifting skills, there’s simply no greater reward. Not even my delight as a kid achieving the rocket launch ending in the classic Game Boy version compares to this.
I feel like I’m playing a role in some hallucinogenic orchestra, and missing a beat would deny me a beautiful payoff.
There are so many big and little moments in Tetris Effect that impress in a similar fashion, all building upon each other to reach a thrilling climax. And each and every one makes you want to keep going, to uncover all the secrets and see everything this universe has to share.
The VR effect
Mind, I haven’t even touched on the experience of playing Tetris Effect in PlayStation VR yet. As you’d expect, it’s the most direct way to immerse yourself in the parade of particles flying about. The new Zone feature — Effect’s only real addition to Tetris’ core mechanics — briefly stops time and washes your eyes in white light, offering a fleeting moment of clarity and respite as the music fades away and every drop is accentuated with progressively brighter tones.
This aspect absolutely dazzles in VR. I quickly made a habit of lifting my head and drinking in the scope of my surroundings the very moment I was finished with a session.
But what makes me happier than playing Tetris Effect in VR is knowing that you don’t have to play Tetris Effect in VR to achieve those revelatory highs. For my first few hours with the game, I simply played on my TV and turned my soundbar up to get the full brunt of the incredible soundtrack. That was enough to hook me, and I think if you have a solid audio solution, it’ll be enough to hook you, too.
And when you’re hooked, you might feel what they actually call the Tetris Effect. You could see blocks forming and falling as you close your eyes to fall asleep. More likely, you’ll be sitting at your desk, like I am at the time I’m writing this, propelled by a song and visions from an alternate dimension. Tetris was already an addictive game, but Tetris Effect’s beauty is intoxicating and occasionally, life affirming. It’s an antidote for the world weary. And unexpectedly, it’s led to some of my finest gaming memories of the year.