Tetris Effect: Connected review - pure multiplayer joy
Tetris is the final boss of a lot of video game consoles. For years I kept my NES around, partly, sure, because I think it is uncommonly nice to look at, but mostly because it meant Tetris on the TV. Equally, I reckon there are a lot of Game Boys out there that only play Tetris these days; I have at least two in my house somewhere. After that it starts to get slightly creepy: as the years have passed, my DS is largely still active because of Tetris DS, a Nintendo-themed blow-out marked by scrappy imagination. And if we allow Lumines into the fold, then jeepers: the PSP is never without the Lumines UMD, and my Vita is basically a beautiful machine for playing Electronic Symphony, a game that had the audacity to change the way the fuse block worked - and I loved it for that.
One day I reckon the Switch will be a machine for Puyo Puyo Tetris, Tetris 99 and Lumines Remastered. It is all slightly uncanny really, like the part in a thriller where the idiot who's about to be killed realises just how far the conspiracy has already spread. And now here's Tetris Effect: Connected. Not content with being the final boss of the last generation of consoles with Tetsuya Mizuguchi's luminous spin on the most elemental video game ever, now Tetris Effect is arriving in rejigged form at the start of a console cycle. And it's on Game Pass. What hope is there for any of us?
It's harmonious, I reckon, that the final boss of a lot of video game consoles now has a mode with a final boss in it. Tetris Effect: Connected is basically Tetris Effect, that cosmic delight, with a multiplayer suite added. (You could argue the leaderboards in Tetris Effect were already a pretty appealing multiplayer suite, but trust me, this is even better.) And the brightest star in the new multiplayer constellation - unwise to go with an analogy there, but Miz does things to me - is Connected itself. Three against one, or more commonly three against an AI. Monster Hunter Tetris. WOW Raid Boss Tetris. Abel Gance's Napoleon with the three-part-projection Tetris. Jeepers!
Quickly, though, a very brief refresher in Tetris Effect itself. Tetris Effect is Tetris by way of Lumines - it's been rebuilt around themed skins that bring the audio and visual elements into all kinds of intergalactic resonances, and it's also borrowed Lumines' trick of varying the speed of play in interesting ways, so Tetris no longer has that problem of being a game that just gets faster and faster until it's unplayable. There's also a Zone slowdown ability that allows you to keep cleared lines on screen for a few woozy seconds so you can build on them, creating clears of six, seven, eight rows at once. The Tetris tower of your hypnagogic fantasies. And there's a bunch of fascinating experiments that take Tetris and turn it into all kinds of other things. It is literally one of the greatest games of all time and for once I don't feel particularly weird typing that.
Anyway! Connected. Connected links you up with two other Tetris players and pits you against an AI boss. Actually it pits you against chains of AI bosses, with different difficulty levels, all built around the zodiac.
What this means is that you and your two allies play separate games of Tetris while the boss also plays their own. The boss's victories translate into flinging attacks at you that generally mess things around - knocking holes in your lines, or raising the floor, or delivering giant pieces into the well, that kind of thing. Your victories, meanwhile, steadily build a meter that eventually allows you to join up your three games. I am going to say that again in italics, because this is one of those War-Declared moments that newspapers used to live for. You build a meter, right, that eventually allows you to join up your three games. So all of a sudden all three of you are taking turns to drop pieces into a very wide shared game of Tetris and clear as many lines as you can. Panoramic Tetris!
This has been carefully handled. You can see where the other players are going to place their pieces at any time. And you also have to take turns. So two of you might have an eye on the same spot, but if the other person is ahead in the queue you are going to have to move on. The boards you bring into play are gently rearranged, with all the gaps knocked out, but you can still play tactically in waiting for this join-up moment to occur. And then there's Zone, the slow-down that allows you to stack and stack and stack.
And when this connection happens, well, something astonishing takes place. Collaboration. Wordless, elegant collaboration. Three strangers building a Tetris line together, across space, and with no means of communication beyond the pieces themselves.
I have always felt that puzzle games are amongst the most internal of games - abstract worlds of wordless actions, games that really foster the creation of private language (when Tetris Effect tutorials refer to the game's matrix, for example, there's an X-Factor record scratch in my head every time because it will always be the well to me). These are games that feature things which there is simply no language for at all. And yet Tetris Connected joins up three strangers and it all works. There is a kind of communication inherent in simply knowing how the game is played, in knowing it innately. It turns out I know Tetris well enough to understand what a stranger is planning on doing with one of those awkward Z bricks. It flattens me that this works as well as it does.
All this, and your lines cleared as a team finally zap into the boss's game. Victory can be swift and devastating. Even better, at the weekend I gather that another human player can play as the boss, so victories can be swift and devastating and personal.
I should probably talk about the other modes. Multiplayer stuff is available in ranked, friend, and local varieties, and there's lots of levelling up and avatar unlocking to be done. Because this is Mizuguchi, there is a sort of intergalactic framework to all of this that involves black holes and a pyramid at the centre of the universe. I am on board with this even though I try not to think about it too much. That said, just googling around today to write this, Tetris Effect has lead me to discover the Zone of Avoidance, so Miz continues to deliver for me on multiple fronts. (Also, playing this in the early days of a console launch, Xbox Live has been a little wobbly. I have had the odd connection issue, but it's hard to know what to blame that on precisely and I am tempted to believe it will calm down.)
Outside of Connected, there are three more modes, all two-player: Zone Battle, Score Attack, and Classic Score Attack. They are simple but great. Zone Battle is one versus one but you fling your cleared lines at the other player to mess them up. Given that you can trigger Zone play in this game, it means the whole thing is fast and aggressive.
Seriously, it is a knackering game mode, but very beautiful. I always lose, and swiftly, yet I am stunned into cheerfulness just by being close to such brilliant play. Zone Battle is for the show-boaters, the Ulimatris Masters. It reminds me a bit of watching fifteen minutes of flamenco dancing in Spain once, fifteen minutes that involved four costume changes and a guitarist who was dripping with sweat by the end of it, while the wooden floor was reduced to kindling. It was so vibrant, so much a combination of music and dancing and passion and energy, that it was both hypnotic and exhausting to watch. This is Zone Battle. It's glorious but deadly.
Score Attack is much more for people like me. It's not for the fighter pilots and flamenco dancers out there, but for the diligent Tetris plodders. I plod my way to victory pretty handily here sometimes. The idea is that it's one versus one again but you can't influence the other board. I play my game and you play yours and whoever has the highest score wins. No Zone, I think, but you can still hold pieces and do hard and soft drops and all that sweet jazz. It's a very refined way to pass the afternoon - I can imagine Captain Hastings really getting into it. What I particularly like - beyond that it is a primer on remembering the hidden importance of the Combo system - is that when one player has crashed out and the other has won (you can see whether you are behind or ahead on points at any moment) there is this sort of decision revolving around politeness to consider. Tetris etiquette. Tetriquette. Do you keep playing regardless, or do you bow and tower your game to a swift conclusion so that everyone can get on with their lives with a little dignity? It is a fascinating problem for a game to throw out there.
Finally Classic Score Attack is the same deal but with original Tetris rules. No hold, no hard or soft drops, no indicator of where a piece is going to land other than the indication that your own Tetris smarts provide. This mode is not just a reminder of how good Tetris has always been, even when unadorned, but it's also a reminder of what the Tetris Effect difference is: every action has a sound, and every sound builds into an organic kind of performance. For some reason I hear this most clearly now in this mode, when the game is at its simplest, riffing on NES visuals and the original soundtrack, riffing, reworking, remixing.
It's almost unfair, really, to take a game that was already so fearsome and sort of find a bunch of ways to make it even more interesting and dynamic and maddening and beautiful. Whenever I think of Tetris Effect - and Tetris Effect: Connected, which again, I should reiterate, contains the original game as well as the multiplayer stuff - I think of Laniakea, which serves as a map to the campaign screen and is also the supercluster that is home to the Milky Way, the Great Attractor, and so many other billions of glittering wonders and fancies. Load up Tetris Effect and it always shows you where we live. And in playing it, it continues to show us a little something about who we are.