Tetsuya Mizuguchi is a synesthetic madman.
When talking about games as art, we usually consider narrative, theme, tone, and symbolism contributing to a single cohesive experience.
That's why Hideo Kojima, Goichi Suda, Yoko Taro, and Hidetaka Suehiro are lauded for the stories they tell through the medium of video games.
They are auteurs with visions that teach, comment, and invoke.
Mizuguchi approaches video games in a far different way, but his works are no less artful.
Almost entirely eschewing narrative for imagery, Mizuguchi's games like Lumines and Rez are journeys of sensation, not story.
They're works of light and sound, melody and rhythm, stimulating the eyes and ears beyond conscious thought.
No characters, no arcs, no drama, just simple shapes dancing in time with your actions, glowing and exploding as you unconsciously synchronize with the beat.
I've always enjoyed his design philosophy (Lumines Remastered is a must-have Switch game, and Rez Infinite is a fantastic virtual reality experience), but Tetris Effect has made me truly appreciate it.
Enhance Inc.'s Tetris Effect ($59.99, PlayStation 4) combines the beautifully simple nature of Tetris with producer Tetsuya Mizuguchi's aesthetic vision to produce the most mesmerizing, subconsciously satisfying, and addictive game I've seen in ages.
It's a masterpiece; an example of a game being a work of art by sensation rather than story.
The Many Modes of Tetris
Tetris Effect is, at heart, a Tetris game.
That's the core concept for all of its modes.
You have a well (vertically oriented rectangle) of space in which you drop clusters of four blocks called tetriminoes to form complete horizontal lines.
Complete lines disappear, making room for more blocks.
If the blocks reach the top of the well, the game is over.
It's the same game it's been for 34 years, since Alexey Patjinov first developed it in the Soviet Union (though most western audiences were exposed to it five years later on the Nintendo Game Boy).
The rules remain the same for Tetris Effect in all of its modes.
The main game mode, Journey, takes you on a tour through several dozen audio-visual experiences that serve as the backdrop for your Tetris game.
Landscapes, fireworks, and geometric shapes dance behind the well, with music that matches each level's tone.
A nighttime seascape is joined with chimes and the chirps of dolphins, while a dusty canyon is filled with drums and chants.
The blocks themselves match the tone as well, changing color and shape to fit the backdrop and music.
I appreciate how effectively the blocks and boundaries of the well stand out enough from the rest of the screen.
In other words, the background complements the action rather than distracts from it.
Beyond Journey, you can also play Effect modes with alternative mechanics and goals.
They include simple Tetris challenges such as endless marathons of block-dropping or clearing a set number of lines, more complex challenges such as eliminating specific blocks in the well or setting up combinations of clearing lines every drop, and even relaxing variations such as a consistently slow "Chill Marathon" in which you can just relax and let the blocks fall leisurely without the possibility of the game ending.
The Mixed Effect mode is the most chaotic, periodically adding different variables to the game while you play.
One moment, you might be dropping pieces made of only three blocks at a time.
The next, the entire well might be flipped upside-down, forcing you to rethink your controls.
The blocks might shuffle and spin to throw off your carefully built towers or offer new ways to clear the rising mess.
It's entertaining and unpredictable, though it still encourages the same hypnotic state of flow that the other modes do.
Old and New Tricks
The Journey mode has a special hook that adds extra challenge and complexity to the game without feeling like a fundamental departure from the classic Tetris feel.
Normally, you can only clear up to four lines at a time, which is why erasing all four with a single long piece is called a Tetris.
As you play in Journey mode, however, you build up a Zone meter that you can trigger by pressing L2 or R2.
This puts you in the Zone, which freezes time while the meter steadily drains.
After you activate the Zone, completed lines are moved to the bottom of the well but not cleared.
When you come out of the zone, all of the lines you completed disappear at once for a massive score bonus.
With the right planning and reflexes, you can go beyond a simple four-line Tetris and get an Octotris (eight lines), Decatris (10 lines), Dodecatris (12 lines), Decahextris (16 lines), or even the fabled Perfectris (20 lines, completely filling the well).
The Zone mechanic is a welcome addition, inviting the player to balance risk against reward by stacking blocks higher and higher to clear more rows at a time when the Zone meter is full.
For the record, I have yet to get a Perfectris, myself.
Besides the Zone mechanic in the Journey, Tetris Effect's fundamental design is loaded with the more modern game mechanics that recent versions of Tetris, such as Puyo Puyo Tetris ($19.93 at Amazon) , include.
You can save your current tetrimino in a "hold" box next to the well, or switch between a dropping tetrimino and the held one, by pressing L1.
You can also continue rotating your tetrimino once it's made contact with the bottom of the well, giving you extra time to get it into position after it's fallen.
An outline of your tetrimino will appear at the bottom of the well while it falls, letting you see where it will land before you drop it (either with a soft drop by pressing the down button to make the piece fall faster, or with a hard drop by pressing the up button to make the piece instantly jump to the bottom).
These features might disappoint die-hard Nintendo fans who primarily know Tetris from the Game Boy and NES versions, but they're standard mechanics in modern Tetris games.
You can also disable most of these features individually, if you wish.
Visions of Blocks
The gameplay is excellent in its simplicity.
It's Tetris, and it hasn't had to change much in 34 years.
The real draw to Tetris Effect is the aural and visual harmony it provides.
I touched on the backdrops and music earlier, but those descriptions don't do justice to the synesthetic experience.
The sights and sounds are excellent on their own (and can be rendered in up to 4K at 60 frames per second on the PS4 Pro), but how they meld with each other and respond to the gameplay really puts it over the top.
Tetris Effect basically acts like Lumines in regards to music and control, but with even better presentation.
As in Lumines, your actions in Tetris Effect trigger sound effects that complement the music.
Moving and rotating tetriminoes causes notes and beats that fit in with the current stage.
It sounds like a very minor thing on paper, but it feels remarkably immersive and even hypnotic to contribute to the beat.
Just like in Lumines, you'll feel compelled to match your movements to the music while responding to every piece as it drops, subconsciously backing the rhythm of the stage with every button press.
This effect is enhanced by how the music affects the speed of the game itself in Journey.
Rather than dropping blocks at a consistently faster rate while you play, gravity itself responds to the music.
Slower parts of songs let tetriminoes fall languidly, while faster tempos cause them to plummet.
Speed changes are indicated by a chime, before the stage's song speeds up or slows down, so you can be aware of the moment it happens (and if you're unsure, the current speed is displayed as a number next to the well).
It's another design choice that helps blend how you play the game with how you experience it.
It isn't necessarily a plus for everyone, though, since it's a much less organic and natural-feeling way to produce and increase challenge than steadily stepping up the speed as you play (which is how speed is handled in some Effect modes).
Tetris Effect works with PlayStation VR, which makes the experience even more immersive.
With a virtual reality headset, your view is consumed by the well in front of you and the backdrop around you (which is a fully rendered 3D space with depth).
Add some good headphones, and you can lose yourself completely in the game and enjoy being entirely engulfed in the sights and sounds as you drop blocks.
It's completely optional, and I prefer simply playing on a large TV with good speakers, but playing in VR offers a completely different type of immersion.
Ranks and Rituals
Don't expect two-play head-to-head Tetris, or any kind of direct competition; Tetris Effect is intended to be a solo experience.
The closest you can get to competition is online leaderboards for the Effects modes.
The game also has a weekly online "Ritual" where a set of Effects modes are singled out with the challenge to collectively earn enough points in them to reach a set threshold.
Every player's contribution is then ranked when the collective score is reached.
A leveling system adds to the addictiveness of the game, though it doesn't overshadow the simple appeal of Tetris itself.
You earn experience points as you play, which let you gain levels over time.
Higher levels unlock new effects and stages, and glowing avatars for use in Effects mode.
Additional avatars are unlockable as an in-game achievement system for completing certain tasks, and as rewards for high enough ranks in the weekly Ritual.
Your overall rank also goes up every ten levels, so you can progress from Beginner to Adept to Expert to Master.
It isn't a big part of the game, but it adds a nice sense of progression.
The Tetris Effect Effect
Tetris Effect is an enthralling, hypnotic experience, and easily the best Tetris game since Tetris DS.
It takes the immaculate, trance-inducing audio-visual presentation of Mizuguchi's previous games Lumines and Rez and merges it with the beautiful simplicity of Tetris to produce an extraordinary experience.
It's an art installation as much as it is a fantastic game, and it will keep a beat in the back of your head and the outline of blocks falling behind your eyelids for days after you stop playing it.
It's a must-have game if you own a PS4, doubly so if you have a PS VR, and it's an easy Editors' Choice.
Tetris Effect (for PlayStation 4)
The Bottom Line
Tetris Effect is a beautiful, enthralling experience for PS4 that combines the perfect simplicity of Tetris with the stunning and hypnotic visual and audio design of Lumines.