Concrete Genie didn’t enthrall me right away. After an hour of gameplay, in my head, I thought to myself, “Is this all the game has to offer?” Turns out, I wasn’t playing the game how it was intended, and it took trial and error to figure out that what I was doing wrong wasn’t actually wrong, but not expressive enough. In Pixelopus’ newest game, once you understand how the game works and what it asks of you, it is when the fun begins.
Over the eight or so hours I spent exploring the city of Denska, I found myself wanting to express myself in some of the most imaginative ways the game offers, and the onus is left to the player. Once you’re in the quasi open-world, many walls need a fresh coat of magical paint from a giant magical brush Ash owns. You might start with basic instructions on how to flip pages, select a stamp and then watch as it comes to life on a bare wall. Combining grass with flowers, adding trees and stars, then finishing with a campfire under a Borealis is one of the first moments I said to myself, “Whoa.”
Your abilities are tied to Sony’s motion control set up or the right analog stick. You’ll browse through pages of designs by tapping R2, each offering their own unique stamp on the world and all gorgeously combined for stunning murals. Testing both the motion controls and right analog, I found the motion controls to not only be simplistic but more accurate than the rigid analog offerings. Thankfully, being precise isn’t exactly a requirement for completion.
Across Denksa, Ash finds burnt out string lights and walls that need his magic touch. Spread across town are pages of a ruined sketchbook of Ash’s, destroyed by the town bullies. Collecting these offers more stamps, and in some cases, new Genies that are a key component of the gameplay.
These are all monsters Ash drew since he owned the book and serve as companions who help overcome obstacles. One genie may ask you to draw whatever it is displayed over their heads, which unlocks a power-up called Super Brush, this pushes back the darkness covering the city. Finding a new genie offers you the chance to customize their appearance; add horns, a tail, tentacles, and so on until you bring them to life. As you bring each to life, the genies live on the walls, and they’ll stay there or follow you by calling out to them.
Colour, Colour, Everywhere
By completing an area, Ash creates a masterpiece, a large mural that helps clean up a section of Denska, pushing the narrative forward and onto the next chapter. Your genie offers helps on that to paint and most of the locations of these masterpieces put the city on display.
Ash is also wonderfully animated, with his movement and as he clambers across rooftops and navigating the landscape is exceptional. With the bullies wandering the streets of Denska, as Ash, you’ll avoid them and throw them off your path. Being caught isn’t necessarily consequential, as all that ends up happening is you need to find your brush and pick it up.
Life Finds Denska
What baffles me about Concrete Genie is the last bit of the story. From the beginning of the game up until near the end, the game is about creating art. Then, the game introduces combat which isn’t bad but comes out of the left field. You’ll encounter bosses with colour-coded shields, paint surf across the city and deal elemental attacks. Had this been presented much earlier, perhaps the experience would be different; perhaps spreading the encounters throughout the earlier parts to keep things going.
A VR experience is bundled with the narrative but has nothing to do with it. I was hoping to play through the campaign in VR with the VR headset and Move controllers, but instead, you’ll follow a genie who asks you to paint within a field as everything your paint touches coming to life around you. I genuinely enjoyed this mode, but it was pretty much over before it started. There’s a secondary mode that opens up after completing the main experience which opens up districts for you to paint in.
Look, if you’re looking for one a game full of heart, you found it. This is the exact type of experience you come to expect of Sony’s Worldwide Studios, and while we’re used to experiences like God of War and The Last of Us, it’s here you’ll find a warm tale. Pixelopus has a hit on their hands and offers one of the best looking games on the PlayStation 4 today. Concrete Genie is a charming and expressive game that ultimately took me by surprise, which resonated with me more than I expected it too.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]