Without context, the premise of Tetris Effect won’t stop you in your tracks. It’s Tetris at heart, and its familiar playfield is presented against fantasy backdrops with songs and sound effects that react to your actions. What that basic description doesn’t tell you is how powerful the combination of conducting tetrominos and music at the same time can be. Give Tetris Effect your complete, undivided attention, and you’ll form a sympathetic bond to the notes and puzzle pieces alike and lose yourself in the flurry of color and energy that permeates every stage. It’s a lofty promise, to be sure, but there’s no other way to describe the impact Tetris Effect has once it finally clicks.
Though there are a handful of modes–no sign of multiplayer, sadly–with basic twists on the standard formula that are worth exploring at your leisure, the bulk of the Tetris Effect experience takes place in Journey Mode. It’s an aptly named trip that will take you to recognizable locations like the moon, but more often to abstract settings that are best defined by a list of adjectives. These dreamscapes can be breezy, electric, stressful, haunting, heavenly, or crunchy, to name a few of the standout qualities. The music in each stage may not always be a predictable pairing, but just because you didn’t see a particular harmony coming doesn’t mean it can’t work.
Over time, you will notice that the game not only hooks you with music, but that it gets you hooked on songs that may not traditionally fit within your musical preferences. Odds are you don’t listen to chanting in foreign languages nor the complicated beats of the tabla on a daily basis, but Tetris Effect makes these uncommon sounds enticing. It’s hard to say what these songs would feel like without first experiencing them during gameplay, but when you’re enraptured in their rhythms whilst simultaneously flipping and reconfiguring puzzle pieces in a race against time, they become relentlessly catchy, sticking with you long after you stop playing.
Because Tetris Effect is so infectious, it’s very difficult to put down once you fall into its rhythm. Tetris has proven itself to be a highly effective game, and one that has an ever-rising skill ceiling that allows it to draw in players who have decades of experience under their belts. Journey mode will ramp up, but in keeping with the sense of going on an adventure, it will also slump down, though rarely for long. The non-linear flow is an important part of the experience that charges you with anticipation and rewards you with relief, and is an unexpected benefit to the standard flow of a session of Tetris.
The shift in tone and pace is often determined by your progress within a stage. Most require you to clear 36 lines total (on normal difficulty), with milestones along the way that dictate the present rhythm. You do, however, have a tool at your disposal that is designed explicitly to pump the brakes and give you a chance to salvage a potentially disastrous situation or to build up a high scoring combo. The Zone ability can be triggered with a single button press at any time that you’ve got some charge in the relevant meter, which is fueled a quarter of the way every time you clear eight lines.
With Zone activated, pieces hover rather than fall, and you get to take your time–as allotted by the meter–placing them in your stack. Clear a line, and it will shift to the bottom of the stack, ready to be cleared automatically when Zone disengages. Because lines persist even when “cleared” while in Zone, you can make combos that go beyond the standard four-line Tetris clear if you’re skilled enough. They won’t count towards your line count for the level, but they will give you extra scoring opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
The new Zone mechanic adds an interesting layer of strategy for new and veteran players alike, but more than this new mechanic, it’s the quasi-spiritual bond that forms between you and the game that defines Tetris Effect. Even though you don’t need a PlayStation VR headset to get a taste, there’s no question that Tetris Effect is best played in VR with headphones turned up loud.
With your vision and hearing cut off from the outside world, you fade into the game. You feel things that you’d never imagine a game of Tetris could make you feel. Don’t be surprised if you catch yourself bursting with joy, or on the verge of tears, all because the confluence of gameplay and sensory stimulation works so well. There is no extra physical movement asked of you–the opposite of almost every other VR game in recent memory. Tetris Effect wants your mind, rather than your body, and even though we all dream of one day being completely immersed in a high-end VR game. In truth, Tetris Effect achieves the base goal–belief in your connection to the game.
Tetris Effect is a transformative game that will more than likely be overlooked by people who think it’s “just Tetris.” Well, it is and it isn’t. Anyone who knows Tetris can pick up Tetris Effect and begin playing right away. The fundamentals remain the same; it is a time-tested formula that continues to work, after all. But Tetris is just the beginning of Tetris Effect. It provides the foundation for a complex emotional journey that defies expectations. Its a vector for meditation. It’s a driving force that pushes you beyond your presumed limits. It is the definition of awesome, and if you have an open heart and an open mind, you owe it to yourself to take the plunge and see why it’s anything but “just Tetris.”