Weeks before I sat down to play Tetris Effect, I watched the Tetris World Championship: an event where the best players of classic Tetris — on the original NES — duke it out for the world title. I was immersed in their hypnotic play — even though the game is slower than modern iterations, there’s less room for error. Watching each competitor’s face, I could see they were laser-focused on their play, exhibiting expressive “ticks” that coincided with their mistakes or last-second corrections. This kind of tunnel-vision requires utmost focus and discipline, and Tetris Effect seeks to take this feeling to synesthetic levels.
As a total novice of Tetris, I began my journey struggling to avoid a “top-out” in the early levels. By the end of the game’s Journey Mode, I was handling high speeds with panicked, but reasonable, skill. This is all thanks to the near religious-experience of Tetris Effect’s visuals and audio. Every level is a microcosm of space, completely separate in theme but somehow an integral part of the game’s beauty. Some are meditative, some are thrilling, and all are wondrous to behold.
The true key to my success was the excellent “Zone” mode, where a trance-like state allows you to drop tetrominoes into without them falling automatically. Every line cleared in this mode is cumulative, meaning they all disappear from the stack when the meter empties. This is both a lifesaver in particularly tricky sections of each stage — when the music swells and chaos ensues — and an excellent way to boost your score. I’ve avoided certain failure by a mere two lines more than once, and the heart-racing act of clearing a level by the skin of my teeth is just as thrilling as any action set piece found in other games.
Alongside Journey Mode are a myriad of “Effect Modes.” These can range from more classic Tetris experiences, like time and score attack, to more relaxing modes without “game overs.” These feature leaderboards and grading systems which are based on score, and there are several gimmicky – but enjoyable – game types such as Purify and Countdown. What’s strikingly absent is any form of true multiplayer; there’s no option to play with another player in real time either online or locally. I know Tetris Effect is seeking a more zen experience, but with all the trappings of modern, competitive Tetris, it’s bizarre that the option wouldn’t be available in some capacity.
But I suppose that’s the point. While Tetris Effect has some of the best gameplay the series has seen to date, its true value is in what’s happening on the outskirts of the playfield. Playing one of the world’s most satisfying games is made all the better when flying through fields of floating windmills, dolphins, literal space, you name it. There are so many thematic touches, so many nods to culture — including quite the smattering of tasteful Native American chants and imagery — that it begins to feel like a stream of the collective human consciousness. I went in expecting a surreal experience, but I came out with the Life In A Day of video games, and it’s truly remarkable.
One major point worth mentioning is that Tetris Effect’s Journey Mode doesn’t always use a traditional difficulty curve in its various stages – instead opting for an experiential flow that corresponds to the visuals and music. One example is a dark, wooded forest stage. Your pieces create a splashing sound when dropping down, as if they’re forming puddles on the forest bed. A little later, the storm breaks, and the sun shines through the trees; birds flock to greet you as the song crescendos into an uplifting fervor.
In other stages, the fastest moments are near the beginning, later breaking into a slower, more meditative pace until the outset. These portions seem to move at break-neck speeds until it becomes unbearable, then allowing novice players to clean up the garbage they inevitably create.
This nonlinear pacing seems to perfectly align with the player’s focus — when I felt the most “in the zone,” the game was responding with an energy of its own. In this way, Tetris Effect is more than a gorgeous rendition of a classic game. Its stages are more than just rows of falling blocks; they’re miniature vignettes of the human experience.
While disappointed by the lack of a multiplayer mode, I am absolutely enthralled by Tetris Effect. I spend days at work with tetrominoes in my eyes, playing a made-up but faithful rendition of the game behind my retinas. Tetris Effect spoke to me entirely on the intended level, leaving an impression that lasts beyond allotted play sessions. This is a game that will forever be in my lineup, something I will return to for both the pleasure of playing and for the soundtrack, visuals, and grace of its presentation.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Enhance Games.
Tetris Effect is a fantastic culmination of every modern nicety the titles have been known for, save for a disappointing lack of multiplayer. A simple puzzle game which turns out to be a triumphant exploration of human culture and progress.