Whether it’s the greyscale monochrome of a battered Game Boy or the bright colours of a flatscreen TV, Alexey Pajitnov’s exquisitely simple Tetris has an almost hypnotic effect. When you stop playing your brain can’t quite let those six shapes go, projecting them onto the back of your eyelids, the side of buildings, or the morning mirror while you brush your teeth. This is known as the Tetris Effect, and while its been experienced by players since Tetris’ inception, 2018 is the year that it becomes real.
Tetsuya Mizuguchi is a game developer whose built the latter part of his career on games that envelope the player in a similar manner. Rez and Lumines are both games whose aural and visual stimulus are dynamic elements of the game’s underpinnings; inseparable and essential. Applying that same ethos to Tetris has resulted in an intoxicating experience that brings spectacular modernity to a timeless classic.
There’s a point when you’re playing Tetris and everything else seems to fade away. Tetris Effect takes that one step further by bringing the game to PSVR alongside its regular 4K HDR presentation, where the closed circuit of headset, player and controller is the only reality. In the main Journey mode – a collection of stages strung together in a series of EP-like sets – you’re still attempting to remove lines from the playing field by fitting shapes together, but when you combine the low latency response of the PSVR’s screens, the ever-changing visuals and wire yourself up to the music, Tetris Effect’s heady melody of the physical and the experiential offers one of the most compelling arguments for virtual reality yet.
Where a Tetris (four lines) was previously the biggest set of blocks you could clear in the classic version of the game, in Tetris Effect there’s the possibility of clearing an Octotris (eight), a Dodecatris (twelve), Decahexatris (sixteen), and the unbelievable twenty line Ultimatris. To do this you have to build up your Zone meter by clearing regular lines, before entering the Zone state that freezes time and offers you the chance to keep on making matches before the meter runs out and you’re back to normal. It’s a fantastic addition to the formula, giving veterans something new to aim for, while it buys newcomers a few much-needed seconds to try and reset.
Though it’s long been part of the Tetris Guidelines, purists may also sneer at the ability to Hold a piece, as first seen in The New Tetris on N64, but has become practically standard in regular Tetris games since. It’s perfect for those moments when the falling piece just isn’t going to go anywhere, or for storing that killer straight block for dropping an instant Tetris. It has the added advantage of resetting a falling block as well, and can save you from a high-score ending mistake at a crucial moment. It can make the game easier than it once was, certainly, but both Zone and Hold feel perfectly in keeping with this game’s aesthetic and its accompanying outlook.
It’s impossible to talk about Tetris Effect without focussing on the soundtrack, and it’s as joyous, exciting, foot-tapping, relaxing, punishing, challenging and nerve-rattling as you could possibly hope. From chilled out ambient electronica, through discordant lounge jazz to uplifting trance, there’s not a dud amongst the lot. Mizuguchi’s loyal Lumines followers are likely to fall completely in love with the interactive album he’s put together.
Tetris Effect is, to all intents and purposes, Tetris X Lumines, and regular Lumines players will recognise the collaboration of sounds and beats that accompany each spin or drop of a shape. In much the same way as Mizuguchi’s previous puzzle masterpiece, your own actions become part of the orchestration, rising and falling with the ebb and flow of the game and adding in your own input alongside.
Tetris Effect still has the ability to constantly surprise the player, whether it’s with blocks that appear to be made of snowballs – each spin accompanied by the sound of crunching footfalls in fresh snow – or mid-level surges of speed that set your pulse on fire while everything becomes a blur. You’ll find yourself coming out of these sections breathless and on edge, your expectations of what Tetris ‘is’ thoroughly dashed.
Besides the main Journey mode, there’s a ridiculous amount of alternatives to be found in the Effects section, where players can choose a mode depending on the “effect” they’re looking for, whether that’s Classic, Focus, or Adventurous while those looking for something to chill out to can opt for Relax.
Classic’s Marathon mode sets you to work on clearing 150 lines and removes the Focus meter, but keeps the ability to hold a block. Adventurous meanwhile throws you a mixed bag of game types, whether clearing Dark Blocks in Purify mode or attempting to make it through a Marathon run with a random series of effects attempting to put you off.
After a few sessions of each, the Relax section may well become even more alluring, with a series of ambient playlists and a no-fail rule keeping everything nice and peaceful. It’s fantastic to have all of the different options, but I still found myself drifting back to the central Journey experience for just one more shot at my high score. No matter which mode you’re playing, chances are you’ll be seeing far more than just blocks spinning by when you close your eyes.
At times spiritual, transcendental and zen-like, at others excruciating, heart-poundingly tense and eye-wateringly immersive, Tetris Effect is game of the year material and essential on PlayStation VR.