Let’s cut to the chase: the almost flawless puzzle game Tetris has become ethereal in Tetris Effect. A potent marriage of dream-like visuals and beautiful soundtrack has turned the classic block puzzler into one of this year’s must plays and, honestly, the first killer app for PSVR.
If you have a PS4, you need Tetris Effect in your library.
Tetris Effect (PS4, PSVR)
Developer: Enhance, Monstars Inc., Resonair
Released: November 9, 2018
Played: Completed Journey Mode on Normal in 3 hours. Experimented for 2 hours in the various Effect Modes. This game is going to be a part of my daily ritual.
Tetris Effect was reviewed using a final retail copy purchased by the reviewer.
At its core, Tetris Effect’s gameplay is the same as Tetris has ever been. Blocks (tetrominoes) fall from the top of the screen, and you stack them to complete rows of lines that clear the play area. Clear four lines in a row with the straight piece and it’s a Tetris. Wash, rinse, and repeat. The challenge with Tetris has always been twofold: as you progress clearing lines, the rate at which the blocks fall speeds up, and since the blocks fall in a random order, you must make snap decisions about which piece to put where to make them all fit and clear more lines.
If you’ve ever played Tetris for a decent amount of time, you’ll start to feel what I might describe as being mentally in the zone. This state of flow, of finding yourself thinking about ways different shapes fit together in the real world, has been scientifically studied and called the Tetris Effect, where this game gets its namesake from. Playing Tetris has been shown to produce changes in the brain, making thinking more efficient, and may help prevent the formation of traumatic memories by demanding a lot of the visuospatial area of the brain.
I mention this because there’s a gameplay mechanic out of this flow state called Zone. As you clear lines and make combos, your Zone meter fills, which when activated gives you the ability to slow time down for a short period of time, a mental breather to figure out how to fix your board. Clearing lines while Zone is active awards a score bonus, but more importantly, will push the clears to the bottom of the field and bring up the lower layers so that you have a chance at addressing those lines. More than once, Zone saved my Tetris game and pulled me from the brink of losing. It’s a really well implemented mechanic that is friendly to newcomers yet incredibly powerful in the hands of a Tetris master.
This game is a product of legendary creative director Tetsuya Mizuguchi, best known for Rez and Lumines, both games that take electronic music and tie it directly to those games’ visuals. Until Tetris Effect, I didn’t really understand Mizuguchi’s synesthesia-producing aesthetic and signature style. When other people talked about his games, they described philosophical, abstract experiences that, for me, didn’t match up with how those games played.
Having misunderstood his previous games’ appeal, I argue now that Tetris Effect is easily Mizuguchi’s masterpiece. Each level’s visual backgrounds and themes are stunning to look at, while the sublime soundtrack matches perfectly. There are also some nice auditory cues: dropping blocks and clearing lines makes beats in tempo with the rhythm of background music. This fills your senses as you play, so much so that I highly recommend playing this game with a pair of headphones on for maximum effect. The particle effects and synthesizers shine, especially if you’re playing on a PS4 Pro on a 4K TV. My personal favorite is the Electronic Jazz stage.
There are two options on the main menu when you boot up Tetris Effect: Journey Mode and Effect Modes.
Journey Mode is a short campaign that takes you through 27 unique levels, each with their own visual styling and original song. As you progress, the chain of levels you must clear gets longer and more demanding, culminating in a final stage where you have to clear 90 lines as the blocks fall faster and faster. I found that the ramp up was pretty fair on each set of levels, and I did find myself coming away feeling like I was getting better at Tetris each time I cleared a series.
Effect Modes are more of a mix of different setups and rules designed to induce moods you might be in while playing: Classic, Relax, Focus, and Adventurous. There’s everything from time-based modes, speed-based modes, no-fail modes, to special challenges. Probably the most fun variation is Mystery, which throws in random effects as you try to play Tetris, some of which help you, but most of which hurt you: the same seven blocks will fall consecutively; you can’t see the next block; random parts of your stack will get destroyed. My one minor quibble is that I didn’t find the Relax category all that relaxing - sure, you can’t get game over in these modes, but there’s still a lines cleared counter and a timer still going by default. Tetris is inherently an anxiety-inducing game, even when designed for a “chill” experience in Tetris Effect.
Having said that, Tetris Effect becomes truly magical if you have a PSVR headset. In VR, the Tetris board is still in front of you, but each level’s scenery and effects fill your peripheral vision. I know it sounds crazy, but this immersion actually helps you focus on the Tetris board itself, and I found myself feeling very meditative with the headset on. I felt myself relaxing each time I cleared out my board, and found that I was letting go of my worries and stress as I was playing. Coming down from that Tetris Effect VR high felt like I gave my brain a message, an experience I really haven’t ever felt before from a video game. It’s going to become a part of my daily routine.
There’s no multiplayer in Tetris Effect, which is usually my favorite part of any Tetris game. However, there are lots of leaderboards for those that like chasing high scores. On the weekends, “Weekend Rituals” feature 24-hour global challenges that task the community with hitting a specific score milestone. Your reward for participating in the Weekend Ritual is a temporarily increased chance of unlocking rare avatars for use in the game’s Effect Mode menu.
If you had asked me before what my favorite Tetris game was, I might tell you Tetris Attack or Tetris 3DS. Tetris Effect is fundamentally no different gameplay-wise than any other Tetris game that came before it. However, by leaning into Tetris’ brain-changing and sensory-filling qualities, Tetris Effect distills something beautiful, transcendent, and even therapeutic into the time-tested puzzle experience. I love every minute of playing this video game: my only regret is that I’m not playing it right now.