When you’re a child, the world often seems more colorful. As you get older, circumstances, external factors, and responsibilities invade, and things start to lose their vibrancy. Your imagination, your wandering, wondering thoughts, your creativity, it can all fade as a monochromatic reality sets in. This is where Concrete Genie begins. The world around Ash, a young boy, is fading, and so he takes refuge in his notebook, where his imagination brings every page to life in colorful fashion. Color is surface level, but under this layer, Concrete Genie has a personal and sometimes pensive story to tell.
Concrete Genie from Pixelopus and Sony Interactive Entertainment is far from flawless. It has its imperfections and many places where Pixelopus colored outside the lines, yet its numerous shortcomings never add up to really muddle the color -- the things the game gets right. Most importantly, Concrete Genie does its themes justice by delivering a unique experience. In most modern games, the creative vision is often buried by design, but not here. The concept, the story, and the gameplay of it simply have a natural cohesion, which is impressive in a time where so many games can feel pasted together by a hot-glue gun. It’s not perfect, and sometimes it’s not even great, but it’s well-realized, charming, and one of the most unique games of the year.
Concrete Genie takes place in Denska, a small achromatic town where the only thing more despondent than the state of the town is the state of its inhabitants. Despair didn’t always hang over Denksa though; it used to be a small, picturesque seaside town with a lot of life to it. Personally, as someone who grew up in a small town left to slowly wither away by the machinations of the world, it immediately felt relateable. However, it’s not technology slowly sucking the life out of the town, but an encroaching and inexplicable darkness.
You’re plopped into this world via the aforementioned Ash, a young bullied teenager who uses art and his imagination as a means of escape. When he’s not being tormented by real-life monsters, he’s drawing them in his notebook, only Ash’s monsters are kind monsters called Genies. And these Genies are his only friends, which, despite being born from his imagination, are brought to life with a magical brush. With his magical brush, his Genies, and a little bit of magic behind him, Ash sets out on a mission to bring Denska back to life, one butterfly-branded vandalizing job at a time.
The narrative of Concrete Genie is relatively simple, and brimming with cliched stories, yet there’s something undeniably heartwarming and sincere about it. The writing is homey, the characters are familiar, and the game never over dips its brush, which is to say, it doesn’t try to do too much with its writing, say too much with its story, or trek completely new ground. As a result, Concrete Genie’s familiar tale never paints an incredibly enthralling story, but it’s effective, and sprinkles in just enough delightful moments to be worthy of seeing through.
Everything in Concrete Genie is in service of its main attraction: painting life into the town of Denska. And there’s two options for this: ungainly motion controls or the right stick. The former I often found to be toilsome, however, the latter did feel a bit glib in comparison. Ultimately, I opted for simple and reliable, which is a shame, because when the motion controls work as intended, it’s another level of immersion and distinction. At first, I thought painting the walls of buildings would get monotonous quick, but it didn't, despite a general lack of interesting variation. It was always pleasant and reposeful. Sometimes I channeled my inner Picasso and took my time, other times I created an abomination that looked like it escaped a kindergarten class. Both were compelling in their own way.
Drawing Genies by using a mix of different pre-made designs is probably the highlight of the game, and was made better by how, once completed, they sprung to life in the world. However, I particularly didn’t like how Genies tied into the puzzle-based moments of the game. On sketchbook paper, the idea of having to create specific Genies to complete specific in-world tasks sounds like it could be interesting, but it’s here where the game’s simplicity lets it down, and where I felt it bordered on a creative chore.
Again, every gameplay element of Concrete Genie feels either complementary to this core mechanic or is light enough that it doesn’t detract or distract from it. For example, it's also a terrible stealth game, which is actually a good thing, because I don’t want it to be a good stealth game. You’re not the only thing that roams the streets and alleys of Denska: there’s also a group of bullies who will chase you, knock you down, and throw your brush somewhere hard to get. You have to be the worst stealth player of all time to get caught by these yobs though. That said, while the group of bullies adds little gameplay wise, they do add a nice narrative touch. Hearing them interact, seeing their hierarchy in action, fleshed out the world nicely and provided some nice background chatter as I painted some apples on the side of the fish market.
My favorite part about Concrete Genie though is that it’s designed to be captivating for both artsy people, and homespun non-artistic folks like me who almost failed art class, a class practically designed to be unfailable. It’s very easy to imagine a world where Pixelopus takes this aspect of the game too far by making it a Bob Ross simulator. But instead, the developer strikes a nice balance between expressive and accessible.
I really like the look of Concrete Genie too, and not just because it’s colorful. I mean, anyone can simply look at a trailer of the game and say nice things about the way it looks. There’s nothing more that needs to be said in this regard: Concrete Genie is one of the best looking games of the year in terms of art direction. What I will point out is how much the character design and the way the faces animate grew on me. It’s a bit inexplicable, but the stiff and feature-light faces often added to the emotion and masked the game’s budget, which reared its head in other technical aspects of the game, like its camera and climbing system. Beyond some jank and clank, Concrete Genie’s Laika-like visuals are a joy to get lost in.
Concrete Genie isn’t just a visual treat; it’s food for the ears as well. The way flutes and strings interweave together has a very natural, sedated feel to it, and this is punctuated with magical and mystical beeps and bops. It’s very easy to listen to, and not only fits the game perfectly, but is something I know I’ll be playing when I want to be transported to a more tranquil world. Even when the music ramps alongside the action, it always maintains a mesmerizing quality to it.
Concrete Genie is an excellent example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not groundbreaking, or really exemplary in any single measure, but everything comes together in a way many games don’t. It’s charming, wholesome, and a complete realization of an original vision. It’s a perfect palette-cleanser experience, and more importantly, it’s wonderfully unique.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Concrete Genie is scheduled to release for PlayStation 4 on October 8th. A PS4 retail code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.