A small, perfectly formed adventure
Ever since its announcement at 2017's Paris Games Week, PlayStation exclusive Concrete Genie has been nothing short of intriguing. The setting, the stunning art style, the artistic game play - this an ambitious game for Pixel Opus, a studio of university graduates whose only other title is Entwined, but that ambition has served them well. Concrete Genie is everything I hoped it would be.
It sees you step into the shoes of Ash, a young boy exploring and painting in his now abandoned home town of Denska. It's not long before you're interrupted by a group of bullies who rip apart your sketchbook and shove you onto a tram, trapping you in a haunted lighthouse. It's here your adventure begins, and the dilapidated town starts to brighten up with your discovery of a genie and a magic paintbrush.
Concrete Genie is predominantly about painting. Your main aim is to collect the ripped pages of your sketchbook and use your designs to brighten the town's gloomy walls. Each new area you go to will provide you with new themed sketches, from forests and flowers, to ponds and thunderstorms, each designed to reflect Ash's emotions at different points in the game. To perform the painting you'll need to select a design from your sketchbook, then drag your controller in the direction of how you'd like it to appear. It's very much designed so regardless of your artistic skill, you can make some beautiful paintings.
It's nice to find a game that bothers using the motion controls in the DualShock 4 - it's even nicer to find a game that uses those motion controls pretty well. At first they feel finicky, but once you get the hang of it you'll find yourself speed painting beautiful landscapes in no time. If you don't fancy waving your controller around in the air pretending you have a magic paintbrush, you can opt to just use the analog sticks to paint too (though it's never quite as satisfying playing that way).
The score is delightful too, each design you paint triggering a unique sound or piece of music that plays as you paint it. When you finish painting a zone, Concrete Genie rewards you with an overview of all the areas you've lit up. It's rare to find a game where the player helps create the atmosphere of a setting, and it's a wonderful feeling to look back at what you've done to revitalise the town.
Throughout you'll have chances to draw genies, colourful creatures that live in your artwork, and can help you bypass obstacles to progress. Red genies, for example, have fire powers, and can burn things like tarps to create platforms for you to jump on. Genies won't always help you for free however, each has a different personality depending on how you draw them, and occasionally they'll ask you to draw something - like an apple to eat, or campfire to warm up around - before they're happy to help you out. It's quite heart-warming watching them lovingly follow you around, and makes an otherwise lonely map full of life and character.
Sometimes when you call the genies over to help you, they do need telling a few times before they'll step in. Occasionally I found that they'd understand my request, but just took their time to get to it, while I frustratedly stood there waving my paint brush around like a nutter. This is likely just me being impatient though - the beauty of a game like this is that there's really no rush to get everything done, and you'll have much more fun if you take your time with it.
While we never find out where the magic of the genies has come from, there are snippets of lore to find throughout the game, pertaining to how Denska became this dark and desolate place. The implication is that an oil spill ruined the fishing industry there, though with Ash's discovery of the magic that seems to linger in the town, it seems environmental disasters aren't the only factor in play. This ambiguity allows the game to explore important themes not just about the environment, but also about how our emotions can affect the world around us.
For starters, a game that covers ideas of saving the environment couldn't have come at a more pertinent time - whether it was intentional or not, a story about kids saving a town ruined by human error seems more relevant than ever.
Themes around emotion are explored through the stories of the bullies, showing us occasional glimpses of their backgrounds helping Ash to better understand why they act so cruelly towards him. When I spoke to the game's creative director in July, we discussed how the studio has researched bullying, and one of the main messages he hopes players take from the game is how to break the bullying cycle "with some tolerance, empathy and understanding", and this message really comes through towards the end of the game. While the plot is somewhat predictable, it doesn't take away from the fact it's been crafted with care and attention true to the message it's trying to send.
After your peaceful time painting, there are some quite heartbreaking scenes that push the story into the end game. You learn about the events that have lead the bullies to behave the way they do, and watch them ruining some of the paintings you and your genies have spent precious time creating. The tone of the game changes after this, introducing a new threat in the form of the Dark genies we see in the trailer.
With these enemies comes a new combat mechanic that's quite stark in contrast to the rest of the game play. It's not too challenging and adds an interesting change of pace to the story as well, giving Ash a new outlet to release some emotion, and face a bigger threat than what the bullies had presented so far.
It's during this section that contains my only gripe with the game, and that's just that the Dark genies look a bit odd. Unlike your genies painted on the walls, these dark genies are 3D, and unfortunately some of their features look a bit, well, derpy. While the 2D creations you make move fluidly, the 3D monsters have their features clipping all over the place.
After completing the main events of the game, you can continue where you left off in Denska to paint and collect anything you may have missed completely undisturbed. While it only takes about five hours to complete the story, given enough time I could spend days traversing its modest open world, painting, repainting, and hanging out with my genie friends. There's something about urban exploration that's always fascinated me too, and I'm always surprised there aren't more games (that aren't horror related) that delve into its world, but Concrete Genie scratches that itch, providing a creative outlet to go along with it.
Concrete Genie is an ambitious game, and it matches that ambition with heart. There's so much of it here, from the animation style, right down to the experiences of each character. There's something touching and personal about some of the stories told, and it makes all the difference. The best way to have these stories feel authentic is to have them come directly from personal experiences. I hope whoever on the dev team may have experienced these things knows what a truly lovely game has come of them.