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The puzzle game of my dreams literally - Tetris Effect review

Before I began playing this week's new game, Tetris Effect, I found myself tempted to compare it to other versions of the puzzle series. That's an easy trap to fall into—a bullet-point sorting of tweaks, features, and differences—and one that gets pretty unwieldy with decades of Tetris games to compare to.

But shortly after I dove into Tetris Effect, with a PlayStation VR headset firmly strapped to my head, my thinking about this game drifted somewhere surprising: not to another game or sequel, but to an event. Specifically, I thought of the latest Classic Tetris World Championship, held in Portland, Oregon, in October.
The puzzle game of my dreams literally
There, a 16-year-old named Joseph Saelee rocked the gaming world by besting seasoned veterans of the game's 1989 NES version and winning it all. You've seen Tetris before, but never like this—with a multi-camera rig showing pros' gamer faces as they pound through ultra-fast sessions in incredible fashion (aided in no small part by a "hyper-tapping" technique used to keep sessions going beyond that version's "kill screen"). I'll never forget what I saw. What unfolded was not revolutionary, but its presentation, drama, and feeling of an oldie born anew made the competition particularly thrilling to watch.

That level of exhilaration—of the familiar and the astounding slamming together, all wrapped in a blanket of tetrads—can also be found in Tetris Effect. That speaks to the game's brilliant guiding principle: not to outdo Tetris but to newly celebrate it. In October, I watched Saelee emerge as a victor, then awkwardly hold a tetrad-shaped trophy in the air while fighting through tears, clearly beside himself. The closest I may ever get to matching Saelee's emotional state has come from playing Tetris Effect.

Subconscious-molding potential
That's not to say this game doesn't establish some intriguing tweaks and changes to what has come before in dropping-block video games. But any conversation about the Tetris Effect should start with a focus on the word "Effect" in the title.

Enhance Games' recent Tetris press tour included stories about the series' hypnotic effect on the human brain, whether via anecdotes or formal research. The phenomenon of closing your eyes and seeing endless falling Tetris shapes or feeling like the gameplay has invaded your dreams (or sometimes nightmares) has been explored to some extent in scientific study. Researchers have even explored how amnesia sufferers have retained Tetris-related information after playing the game at length.

In an interview, producer Tetsuya Mizuguchi confirmed to Ars that he wanted to make an official Tetris game for years. He had even tried securing the series' license before developing rhythmic puzzle games like Lumines and Meteos in the early '00s. Those series revolve around levels where the blocks, backgrounds, music, and sound effects sync together; in Lumines' case, that aesthetic touch also impacts gameplay, as a timing meter determines exactly how you drop and break the game's puzzle blocks.
The puzzle game of my dreams literally
Tetris Effect, then, marries Mizuguchi's sights-and-sounds design philosophy with the subconscious-molding potential of Tetris. If we all see Tetris in the corners of our mind's eye—in the milky blackness of sleep and dreams and meditation—then why not emulate that powerful feeling within a standalone game?

Whether you play Tetris Effect in VR or on a standard TV, you can still look forward to a game that largely resembles other standards, old-school Tetris games. Meaning, players will focus their attention on a standard, 2D board of falling pieces (10 blocks wide, 20 blocks tall), as opposed to a jigsaw-style mess of 3D pieces a la Tetrisphere.

In VR, the standard Tetris board appears at a distance I'd call roughly an arm's reach away, while that board fills the middle of a TV screen in 2D mode. (In both cases, you can adjust exactly how zoomed-in the primary board appears, either via pre-game menus or by pressing a joystick in the middle of a live session.) Where Tetris Effect differs is how it fills the virtual space all around the board, whether within VR or on a TV screen. A clear vision cone means you'll never lose sight of the board and its falling blocks, but the entire periphery—everything above, below, and around—can either sparkle with particle effects or erupt with elements like creatures, airplanes, and distant planets.

In our review period, we unearthed roughly 33 playfields (known as "skins"), and these impact your gameplay more like Meteos than Lumines. The visuals, block shapes, colors, sound effects, and music are all tied together, but they don't impact the basic gameplay. Tetrads fit together and fall down the same way in the aquarium level as they do in the sweeping-desert one.

To VR or not to VR?
But this is Tetris we're talking about—a game that, for some players, melts brains and elicits incredible synaptic responses by default. Rather than rebuild that gameplay model with new blocks or rules, Tetris Effect creates gaming's equivalent of a fully immersed spa experience—a perfectly tepid milk bath, divine foot scrub, and avocado-cucumber face-and-eye treatment all in one.

When you enter one of the game's 33 "skins," a unified aesthetic fills your screen's periphery, all while a linked music track starts up slowly and subtly. Your taps of buttons (d-pad left and right, d-pad up and down, block rotation) typically come with sound effects and musical notes, and the taps' associated notes are often in sync with whatever background music is percolating. Those taps, along with any line completions, create new flashes and animations, and these very rarely obscure your all-important tetrads.

Should you leave the vibration setting toggled to its default (and you should), your controller will start pulsing to the beat of the music. You can also sync up a second controller and assign an "alternate" vibration profile to that one, then leave that controller in a pocket or tucked under your shirt for an additional, supplementary vibration pattern. (You should do that, too.)

Depending on the skin, these sights, sounds, and sensations may combine forces to elicit a soothing feeling over the span of a few minutes—or ramp up the intensity in particularly tribal or club-like fashion. A singer may pipe up after a certain number of lines are cleared, or an entirely new sequence of beats and synthesizer tones may emerge. Either way, as the sounds and sensations increase in intensity, the corresponding visuals usually find creative, unobtrusive ways to trickle into your field of view—which, let me remind you, is probably laser-focused on all that Tetris you're playing.

The resulting sensation is truly unlike anything else I've ever played—at least in VR.

The placement of 3D elements within the skins has clearly been built with VR in mind, which I admit is odd. You do not need to move your head or aim your gaze around when playing this game, and 3D space doesn't impact gameplay (unlike, say, Tilt Brush or Job Simulator or Beat Saber). Thus, the effect may sound subtle as described, and it's admittedly a tough sales pitch: pay extra money, confine yourself to a chair, and bolt yourself down with a headset and cables, just for that extra bit of audio-visual spice.

But, gosh, it's a spicy meatball, this one. Roughly half a dozen Tetris Effect skins are identical in VR and flat-screen modes, but that's because they're the least stimulating in either play style. The rest of the skins' visual elements dance and toy with players' periphery—and, even more importantly, employ astonishing depth-of-field effects. In one level, a dolphin whizzes around in clearly three-dimensional fashion as a level transitions from a steady, underwater swim to a burst above ground. At this moment, conveniently enough, rainbow-shaded water droplets sprinkle all about.

VR also helps the skins deliver a tangible sense of surprise, even after getting used to them. I'm still charmed by one skin that starts in a barren, desert environment, in which your every button press makes the sound of a foot stepping into sand. Midway through this level, the sky fades to black, and with my vision focused on the Tetris board in front of me, I nearly miss the world's dramatic transition from a desert to the surface of the moon—complete with a moon buggy now driving across that celestial body's barren, dusty surface.

The game cleverly takes advantage of your rapt Tetris attention to introduce subtle and not-so-subtle level transformations, and these feel all the more sense-overwhelming within the comfortable confines of a PlayStation VR headset. You'll still get the audio-visual impact by playing on a nice TV, though in that case, headphones (or a great surround system) are nigh essential to get anywhere near the VR feeling. I should warn major PSVR devotees: the image quality (IQ) within this game is, for whatever reason, noticeably blurrier than pretty much any other PSVR game, even when using a PlayStation 4 Pro console. But it's still clear enough to easily play.

"Purr-FECK-triss"
Beneath all its presentation bluster, however, is there really much here beyond "more Tetris?"

I would say yes, as Tetris Effect doesn't skimp on the modes. The game ships with a grand total of 16 selectable modes, though we can whittle that down to roughly 10 discrete ways to play—which, hey, is still a crap-ton of Tetris.
Purr-FECK-triss

Purr-FECK-triss
The campaign mode, dubbed Journey, offers a deliberately sequenced series of skins, and you'll beat these to unlock the skins for use in other modes. Like other modern Tetris games, you get a few modern control tweaks: a "hold" button to save a tetrad for later; a "ghost" hint system to show where your dropping tetrad will land; and an insta-drop button (d-pad up). Should you hate these modern tweaks, they can all be disabled in the game's options menus.

The journey includes one additional perk that cannot be disabled: a "Zone" meter. Charge this up by clearing enough lines, then tap a trigger button to turn the Tetris Zone on and temporarily slow all piece-drops to a crawl. When you complete line-clears in this temporary state, the lines don't go away; instead, they warp to the bottom of your board, even if the lines you clear are higher up (for example, when you're cleaning up garbage after a bad tetrad drop).

At this point, the Tetris Zone lets you do one of two things. First, it can help you clean up a mess in a pinch, particularly in Journey's "expert," higher-speed difficulty, and it will last either until the Zone timer runs out or until you reach the very top of the screen, at which point all those lower, cleared lines will vanish. (Meaning, you can't die while in the Zone.) Second, it can help you pull off a crazy, multi-Tetris clear. Knock out 12 lines before a Zone's timer runs out, for example, and the screen will flash the word "Dodecatetris." (That's a fun word to say out loud, isn't it? Dough-DECK-a-TET-riss.")

Getting out of the Tetris Zone with more than a 15-line clear is quite difficult, because of the more lines you clear, the less space you have to work with at the very top of the 20-tall board. Exceeding the top of your board by even one block ends your Zone run. As of press time, only a few pre-release testers have gotten up to a 19-line clear while in the Tetris Zone.

Of course, I got one of those 19-liners. (C'mon, dog!) Managing exactly when to start a Zone and how to pack pieces in the increasingly cramped space at the top, is one of the most satisfying Tetris systems I've ever encountered, and I love coming back to it. Any Zone completion over 18 lines will make the screen flash with the satisfying phrase "Perfectris." The first time I earned one, all amped up on high-speed Tetris play and gorgeous VR effects, I shouted like I'd just won the Super Bowl. ("Purr-FECK-triss.")

Admittedly, many of the game's other modes are twists on default Tetris, essentially asking you to drop pieces on a blank board either in an endless marathon manner or with some sort of limitation. Most of these are standard stuff, like a timer or a line limit. The "Insane" variant goes in this category, as well, but its emphasis on ludicrous speed will have you gasping. You'll start the mode in an insta-drop state, only to find there are much harder versions of "insta-drop" that turn on as you complete more lines. I look forward to seeing ranked Tetris grand masters review this one.

You also get access to "chill-out" versions of the game, in which you can never get a "game over," the skins can be customized, and the tetrad order is fixed. (As in, you always know exactly when the next reverse-L or line piece is on its way.) Do you live in a state or country that has legalized one of your favorite (arguably safe) inebriates? These are the modes for anyone who wants to combine Tetris Effect with their favorite medications.

Rounding these out are a few objective-based modes, and these err on the side of simplicity in adding clever tweaks to the standard Tetris formula. We get six of these:

  • All Clear and Combo: A pre-made chunk of blocks appears, usually about 16 blocks tall, and you must use a limited number of tetrads to do one of two things: clear the entire chunk of blocks (All Clear) or ensure that each of your tetrads clears at least one line per drop, and thus rack up the titular Combo of line clears. Whether you succeed or fail the listed objective, you'll constantly get new chunks of blocks to contend with, and successes will keep your timer going longer. While they're quite similar, both of these offer a unique way to emphasize the game's tetrad queue (which is five-deep in this mode).
  • Target and Purify: Slightly different takes on the same concept, of targeting colored blocks within a larger, garbage-filled cluster before time runs out.
  • Countdown: A glowing line indicates where a solid line-piece will eventually fall, usually within six to 12 tetrad drops. Build your lines around this and then, when that line-piece drops, claim more points for getting doubles, triples, and full Tetrises as a result. (You get far fewer points by making your own line clears.) After each line-piece falls, another glowing line (or sometimes two) will appear in different places, forcing you to rebuild or chisel your board accordingly before those drops. There's never been a Tetris mode like this, and it's a personal favorite in terms of making players think outside the block.
  • Mystery: This one is likely the most familiar, as it slaps players with random, annoying restrictions over the course of an otherwise standard session. Sometimes, you'll lose the ghost-hint indicator or a peek at your next-piece queue. Other times, you'll get the same tetrad shape seven times in a row or have your entire field of view turned upside down. And still others, you'll have a limited-time chance to clear a randomly generated "bomb" (which, if left uncleared, will blow an annoying hole in your field) or be forced to drop a single, super-sized tetrad. It's a pain in the butt.

That's a ton of Tetris, and those modes go a long way toward making the $40 price point easier to swallow. As a longtime series fan, I do wish we got a little more. I don't believe the game needed any tweaks as aggressive as, say, The New Tetris' block-forming gimmick or Tetris 2's new shapes. But borrowing from other Tetris games' tweak-filled modes would have been welcome, particularly from the PS3 exclusive Tetris (yes, just "Tetris"), which have never been ported elsewhere. Those include a Lumines-like "Scanner" mode that cleared lines in timed waves and a "Chill" mode that punished players for leaving certain blocks uncleared for too long.

What's missing, what's iffy
That PS3 version was pretty focused on multiplayer, as well, which I point out because Tetris Effect skips local and online multiplayer modes entirely. A robust leaderboard system will keep you connected to a worldwide race for high scores, at least, but only one person can play any of the game's VR and flat-screen modes at a time.

A weekly "journey" option asks the game's worldwide community to combine forces and play specific, time-limited modes, but this only unlocks new aesthetic "avatar" icons that you barely see in the game's interface. It's nice to know that Enhance Games has some occasional time-limited challenges in store for players, but the ones we saw during the review period didn't differ all that much from the default modes on offer.

So what does Tetris Effect get specifically wrong? My biggest issue came from the "expert" difficulty in Journey, in which a new skin would appear with blocks starting out at an immediate insta-drop speed. I would not be able to immediately take control of my first falling block, owing possibly to the new-skin animations and introduction appearing (both in VR and TV modes). Similarly, on very random occasions, the frame rate would hitch vigorously when a skin was either transforming in dramatic fashion or being swapped out for a new one.

Anything outside of clear, expected control of my tetrads is flat-out unacceptable, and the brutal precision required in Journey's highest difficulty makes these fumbles too apparent for my liking. Thankfully, the game's other difficulty-minded modes are very good at combining simpler skin backdrops and reduced visual transitions, which means you shouldn't have to worry about those kinds of headaches while playing the expert-minded Insane mode.

And the blurry image quality in VR, even while using a more powerful PlayStation 4 Pro console, makes me wonder whether Enhance Games is struggling to get Tetris Effect's flashy particle systems working at a comfortable frame rate. The game's massive fields of particles are clearly the most demanding visual element in what is otherwise quite often a sparsely rendered game. Enhance Games doesn't have the best track record for getting timely fixes up for its games, particularly the multiplatform Lumines Remastered; we can only hope that Tetris Effect's narrower launch, solely on PS4, will at least guarantee more concentrated patches and support for this one.

But the game's crucial tetrads are otherwise perfectly legible—and it's easy to customize exactly how big, small, and angled you want your 3D Tetris board to appear, whether you're playing on a TV or in VR. Don't let any screen shots of the game fool you; you can use analog sticks to situate your Tetris board to the spot of your dreams.

"We're all together in this love"
As for me, well, let's go back to that story from earlier about a young man winning a Tetris championship and losing his marbles on stage. I really, really empathize with that. I'll pull out just one of many moments that have stayed with me in this new game.

A singer's voice emerges midway through the game's first skin, cooing through a few verses in a very yoga-studio way about memory and feelings, while aquatic sounds and visions of jellyfish warble in the periphery. Soon afterward, upon the cue of a line clear, the skin kicks into sensory overdrive, with more species in this underwater scene lit up by shafts of newly emerging light. That's when the singer launches into a chorus straight out of a mid-'90s Lilith Fair hit, backed by a swell of synth pads and piano plinks: "I'm yours forever / there is no end in sight for us/it's all connected / we're all together in this love."

I would not review this song as a major hit on its own. But I can still hear it in my memory, clear as the moment I first played it, wrapped in all of the game's other elements. That sense memory still gets me choked up—still makes me think of the involuntary sobs that it and other Tetris Effect skins wrung out of me like a sponge of existential dread.

Tetris Effect explores, in titular fashion, what the act of playing Tetris does to the human mind—and takes tender care of its players in the process. I'll admit it: over the years, I have explored hippie-dippie things like meditation, acupuncture, therapy, and psychotropic drugs in search of personal calm and peace. That stuff has been rad. But none of those compare to the feeling that washed over me when I unlocked Tetris Effect's "full" Journey experience (meaning, all skins in a row, no interruptions) and played through its soothing seas and rapturous rapids over the span of an hour in VR.

I know how silly this might sound, typing it outside the soothing VR cocoon that is Tetris Effect, but I stand by it. I have never felt so connected to a greater human truth, a cheesy feeling like the one in that quoted song, than in the act of clearing line, after line, after line within this beautiful video game.

The good:

  • Synesthesia has never looked, sounded, and felt so good in a puzzle video game.
  • Did you see the part where I reached a state of enlightenment? Through VR Tetris? I know, it sounds insane, but it's true.
  • Variety of modes means there's a satisfying Tetris experience for every level of player, from stupidly casual to insanely hard.
  • Zone mechanic doubles-down on what makes Tetris fun in the first place to add amazing salt to default experience.

The bad:

  • Blurry image quality and occasional framerate stutters at launch put a damper on some expert-level modes.
  • This amazing trip is only built for solo play.
  • Some modes are redundant retreads of each other.

The ugly:
If you're not playing this in VR, you're simply not getting the full experience.
Verdict: If you have any emotional attachment to Tetris, buy this—along with a PSVR headset. If you already own a PS4 and PSVR, buy. If you're a casual Tetris player without the right hardware, find a way to play this in VR. And if you hate VR, cool your heels.

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