It's difficult to find someone who hasn't played Tetris at least once in their lifetime. Since its original release in 1984, we've seen the tile-matching game available in various iterations on pretty much every gaming machine since: Game Boy, Amiga, Spectrum, and the list goes on and on.
Tetris has become one of those franchises that has gone beyond a screen to become a cultural phenomenon. And while its tried-and-tested formula sees it remaining one of the best-selling games of all time, it's hard to deny that - after 36 years - it feels a bit stale in the modern gaming climate.
Shaking up a veteran series such as this seems like it would be a monumental task, but Monstars and Resonair managed to do it with Tetris Effect - and it did so in a flurry of color and sound.
A hypnotizing experience
You may look at Tetris Effect and assume it'll just be like any other Tetris game. After all, how can you make connecting tetrominos much more interesting? But that would be your first mistake.
Developed by Japanese studios Monstars and Resonair, Tetris Effect first released in 2018 for the PS4 and PSVR - and proved to be the dark horse of that year. The key thing that the developers understood was that people don't really want the basis of Tetris to change all that much. When you play Tetris, you know you're getting a (typically) calming and almost hypnotic experience - the premise is simple but the increasing level of challenge gives players a reason to keep at it.
This hypnotic feeling is something psychologists refer to as cognitive flow, which is reached when a game offers players concrete goals with manageable rules, goals that fit their capabilities, clear and timely feedback, and (something Tetris Effect is very good at) a lack of distractions.
What Tetris Effect does is build on this cognitive flow even more than we have seen with previous iterations. So, while the game itself is pretty much the same (with a few new modes thrown in), it's what's happening around the game that makes Tetris Effect special.
Tetris Effect's levels each offer an entirely unique themed experience, for example, an underwater level or a peaceful forest setting. While your actual playfield remains largely the same, the music and visuals around the playfield change as you progress - with the gameplay tied to the beat of the music.
Let's take The Deep level as an example. It begins with only a few luminescent fish and coral appearing on this screen alongside with your playfield, while the music, consisting of a simple string orchestra, builds up. As you place tiles, each placement makes an angelic sound - with the completion of lines flashing up blue on the screen. It's captivating as you can feel the anticipation of the strings building to a crescendo. A splash of blue light and a metronome begins to sound, further building the anticipation until - suddenly - some blue rays made up of light particles appear, dancing across the screen. The metronome, paired with a drum beat, begins to pick up the rhythm and the vocals set in. As you clear lines, the rays light up as if in praise. The music doesn't distract, it only enhances your experience. Before you know it you're fully immersed, with a luminescent whale and fish swimming around your screen. It's utterly captivating - especially in VR.
The combination of colors, visuals and music make for a Tetris unlike any you've ever experienced - and, while you play it, you feel distant from the troubles of the world: you're in the "zone".
A welcome escape
We often talk about games as a means of escape and, while that's not always the healthiest way to look at them, in some cases having an activity to focus on - truly focus on - that's not too strenuous can have a positive impact on our psyche.
Tetris Effect is fun, yes. And if that's the bare minimum you look for in a game then you'll be happy. But the level of absorption and immersive it creates is unrivalled to us in this generation. Between its uplifting soundtrack, fascinating visuals and accessibility for the whole family, we would be hard-pressed to walk away from a couple of levels without feeling some degree of relief and satisfaction.