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Hard drop the beat.

You may have played many versions of Tetris, but you’ve probably never played one like Tetris Effect. The latest iteration of the falling-block puzzler comes from Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Enhance Experience and combines music, sound, vibration, and visuals into something that becomes almost transcendent. It does have a late-game difficulty spike that’s worse for those that aren’t playing in VR, but this is still a masterfully presented new entry in a long-running series.

The main campaign of Tetris Effect is Journey, an engrossing series of connected boards each with their own diverse art style, music, and ruleset. Each board is unique and I was constantly surprised by what they offered. One might see you starting underwater as a beautiful particle-effect whale swims around you, while the next will be a desert landscape with a meandering caravan of camels that, halfway through, transitions to a realistic-looking version of the moon complete with an astronaut tooling around in a lunar vehicle. Some don’t have music at all, instead opting for a soundscape drawn from the sounds of wind. Another had me inadvertently creating a jazz jam with the sound effects created by rotating, moving, and dropping pieces.

Don’t be fooled by the focus on music and mood though – Tetris Effect can be punishingly difficult. There’s no hard-and-fast rule to how each stage will play: some are traditional in that they start off slow and ramp up after you clear a set number of lines, while others start blisteringly fast then slow all the way down to let you regain your composure, only to suddenly speed up again without warning. This constant fluctuation in speed and difficulty at times feels at odds with the often meditative presentation of Tetris Effect’s stages. The ability to rotate a piece several times after it lands and the return of the hold queue, with which you can substitute a Tetromino once per turn, give you several ways to react but it can still feel cheap to suddenly see a board speed up 5 or 6 levels, slamming blocks into positions and ruining my carefully laid plans.

If you find yourself in a pickle, you can activate Tetris Effect’s trippy new time suspending Zone mechanic. Zone accrues as you play and activating it pauses the action, allowing you to clear lines for a high-score combo or to set up your board without the constant threat of falling blocks. Zone may not be as revolutionary as something like the ability to swap out a Tetromino for one in your hold queue but I enjoyed it for the strategic possibilities of stacking a board as high as I could and then quickly working to clear it as the timer ran down. Early on I’d horde my Zone until I found myself in a jam, but a quick look at the leaderboards convinced me to use it as often as possible.

Zone allows you to catch your breath when things get hectic.

Tetris Effect rewards you more points for consecutive line clears, hard-dropping blocks into positions as quickly as possible, and other advanced maneuvers like spinning a piece into a tight space known as a T-Spin or completely clearing a board. Your total score across all stages in Journey is shown on a leaderboard and each stage awards you a grade depending on your performance. Pausing the action with Zone and stacking line after line (my record is 16 consecutive lines, AKA a decahexatris) is imperative if you want any chance at leaderboard glory. Toward the end of Journey Mode, Zone becomes indispensable – not for score, but as a means of dealing with the fluctuating speed of gameplay and increased clear requirement.

Pausing the action with Zone and stacking line after line is imperative if you want any chance at leaderboard glory.

It’s a shame, then, that Zone isn’t available outside of Journey Mode, because Tetris Effect offers a wide selection of other Effect Modes where I constantly wanted to activate it but couldn’t. There’s my all-time favourite, the traditional Marathon mode (in which you’ll need to clear 150 lines as the speed increases at regular intervals) along with more puzzle-specific challenges that might require you to completely clear a board using only four blocks or react to modifiers like an inverted board or giant, oversized Tetrominos. These modes are great fun, especially the puzzle modes, and lend themselves to shorter jump-in-and-play sessions compared to the absorbing nature of Journey Mode. I also found myself playing a lot of the relaxation versions of the harder modes that let you play traditional Tetris without the threat of a game over.

Focus Block

No matter which mode you’re playing, particle and sound effects erupt around you as you rotate Tetrominos and clear lines. If you’ve played the awe-inspiring Rez Infinite and its Area-X stage, Tetris Effect’s visual and audio design will be immediately familiar. I frequently found myself rotating blocks and holding off on dropping them into place not to increase my score, but to enhance the music and sights happening around me. Unfortunately, this is where Tetris Effect’s style can sometimes get in the way of its gameplay.

When you clear a line, a massive array of particles erupts from the board and other elements in the scene. It’s honestly breathtaking to see a pod of dolphins explode in a shower of neon as their playful chirps surround you. But these effects are sometimes so distracting they caused me to fumble a difficult block placement or lose track of my place. One stage, for example, sees cowboys on horseback regularly walk in front of the game board, slightly obscuring your view – and that’s frustrating when blocks are coming down at high speeds. This becomes particularly bad toward the end of Journey Mode, where the speed of falling blocks is so fast that a missed placement will doom the average player. Tetris Effect tries to offset this with a forgiving continue system and the ability to tweak the amount of particles and distance of the camera from the Tetris board, but after two hours of attempting the same 13-speed board continuously I longed for a way to turn off all the fancy effects just so I could concentrate.

If you persevere and make it to the end of Journey Mode you’ll be rewarded with the ability to sit back and enjoy the sights and sounds without gameplay, allowing you to really appreciate the level of craftsmanship in Tetris Effect’s design. Relaxing on my couch and letting it all wash over me is one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had in VR.

PSVR is very much the best way to play Tetris Effect.

PSVR is very much the best way to play Tetris Effect. Not only are all those effects even more spectacular in 3D, but the distraction of exploding particles is almost non-existent. I played through Journey Mode and several of the Effect modes both in VR and non-VR and found the cumbersome headset to be superior. When playing out of VR I regularly had to zoom the camera all the way in to minimise distractions, which made me miss a lot of the stages’ particular visual flourishes. Maybe it’s the relatively low resolution in PSVR or the ability for my eyes to more easily track movement in 3D, but even a multicoloured whale belly flopping in front of my game board never threw me off.

The Verdict

Who would think that a new version of a simple game like Tetris could deliver such a thoroughly absorbing experience? The merging of time-tested gameplay with the synesthesia-inducing sound and visual design of Tetsuya Mizuguchi creates something you’ve likely never experienced. While Tetris Effect’s diverse and beautiful presentation can sometimes literally get in the way of the gameplay, this is proof that even after 30+ years, Tetris can still feel fresh.



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