Tetris Effect was a title that I went in figuring that I would enjoy, simply because I have been a fan of Tetris for so many years now. The core mechanics are the same – but the presentation here is completely revamped and makes Tetris Effect the most entertaining single player Tetris experience I have had in a very long time.
The classic formula remains intact all of these years later. Different shapes – Tetrominos – each comprised of four smaller squares descend from above. Once they settle on whatever they strike at the bottom, a new piece falls from above. They fill a rectangular space as they descend, and if you can fully form a horizontal line from one side of the space to the other, the line disappears as it buys you more time from inevitable defeat while adding points to your score. Whether at the arcade (it is still my go-to at The Grid), on my NES or numerous other systems over the years, I have spent a lot of time with Tetris.
There have been some variations applied to the formula. Tetrisphere was probably one of the more unique takes back when it released on the Nintendo 64. Other releases have tried adding different types of multiplayer rules and modes to liven things up, but not many take the approach of focusing just on the core single player experience. That is clearly the focus here, as I was surprised to find out that Tetris Effect does not offer any kind of multiplayer – either in local or online. Admittedly, that probably hurts the longevity of this release, but as someone who tends to spend more time playing Tetris on my own than not? I am happy to report that the infusion of music and zany visuals really works here.
The visuals come at you in multiple ways when playing Tetris Effect. The first is in the blocks themselves. One of the first things my wife and daughter noticed was that the Tetrominos are not specific colors now, and I will admit that there were times that caused some difficulty on my part as well as that sameness can cause for some confusion when trying to drop blocks into place. However, the pieces themselves are represented in many new ways and shapes, such as gears, or actual cubes that spin when completing a line and add a good deal of visual flourish there.
Probably the most notable visual change is in the backgrounds. They range from calming waves of water as dolphins leap up and down while playing to a galaxy of exploding colors and sparkles that zoom and zip around in the background. Admittedly, these can further add to the game’s challenge, if only because it can be a little distracting at times. Also it can be difficult to sit back and just enjoy the visuals because of the demands of playing, though there are quite a few modes available – including a theater one – that can help you tweak your experience and opportunity just to take things in. There are a few other graphical bits of flare as well, from being able to use the left thumbstick to zoom in and out of the board to using the right one to tilt the board on its axis and look at the blocks in more of a 3D than 2D perspective. My biggest quibble is I have not found a way to lock in a preferred view, which means at the start of every match, I am quickly zooming in using the left thumbstick, which can lead to a misplay right at the start of the session. It would be nice to save that view for use at all times, because the initial view is zoomed back further than I would like. I realize that zooming right in crops out a decent amount of the background, but it’s just more comfortable for me to play that way.
The overall controls are exactly what I expected, with soft and hard drops, spinning of Tetrominos and the ability to spin pieces into tight spaces and buy an extra second or two in the process. There is a campaign or ‘Journey’ mode, which is where I kicked things off. The biggest change to the formula gets introduced here with the Zone mechanic. As you play, there is a meter that fills up. You can trigger it at any time as long as you have something in the tank, but you get far more bang for your buck if you wait until it is maxed out. What the zone does is freeze the descent of the blocks at the top of the screen.
This gives you time to figure out your next placement more precisely. It also eliminates the concern that you might smack into a taller structure in the middle because the piece is not falling. Lastly, any completed lines push towards the bottom. All of this happens as the meter steadily drains, and once it is done, all of those lines are completed and can lead to some really big scores. That particular mechanic also saved me a few times when a stage was getting out of hand during Journey mode, allowing me a few precious moments for precision placement before clearing several lines away.
Journey mode sees you through a variety of different blocks and environments, and one of the more interesting – and sometimes maddening – facets of this is that the line drop speed will jump up and down. The goal of hitting 36 lines so I could move onto the next stage often had me building up for big four line gains while things were slower, because I knew at any time I could hit the line threshold and see speeds jump from a 3 to an 11 in the blink of an eye. Playing on the normal / default difficulty, I think I experienced Game Over three times during the Journey. It was not terribly difficult, but there were times bad luck or bad execution of my plan did me in.
Beyond the Journey, you can then play out different kinds of matches (like Marathon, where you try to get the best score you can in 150 lines) or just play through some of the beautiful stages at a more relaxed pace. The amount of customization provided is impressive, and the visuals and music provide a sort of fever dream experience when you spend three hours or so playing without a break. Or um… so I’m told.