As Short, Beautiful, and Colorful as New Year’s Eve Fireworks
The second game from the studio Pixelopus, Concrete Genie is an action-adventure game exclusive to the Playstation 4 released on October 8th, 2019. The game is a semi-open world with four areas that are accessed little by little through story progression and some light platforming. Though a brief six to eight hour play through, Concrete Genie is a world worth visiting and a journey worth taking. My initial draw to Concrete Genie game was the cover art, which looked so much like the doodles my late roommate, Matt Griffin, used to draw. Before he went to be with the Father, he had a gift for just making up a little monster or character and putting it on the page. Meanwhile, I could only draw what I could see in front of me. He and I used to draw in our sketchbooks or on our dining room table in our apartment as a way of decompressing from the stress of college. Ultimately, that’s what Concrete Genie is, a game that allows a player to be expressive, move at their own pace, and take a step back from the fast paced games that have largely become so action orientated. The therapeutic nature of the game is one of the reasons it stands out.
You play as Ash, a talented high school artist whose canvas is the abandoned, gloomy, and polluted city of Denska. Like most high school artists, Ash is bullied and tormented by a roaming group of bullies who destroy his sketchbook. While searching for the pages, which become collectibles to find in the game, Ash finds himself at an abandoned lighthouse which houses the first of many “genies,” Luna. Luna bestows a magical paintbrush, the size of a one-handed sword, to Ash which he uses to create more genies and landscapes with the ultimate goal of bringing both color and light to Denska. Genies are vibrantly colored, neon bright, constructs that are painted on to walls and other flat surfaces that come to life and help with solving puzzles throughout Denska. These bright monsters are functional in progressing the game but all have a number of ways to interact with that makes them feel alive and personable. The game deals with sometimes heavy themes such as bullying and processing and expressing emotions in a positive or, sometimes, negative way.
The old cliche, “Hurt people do/say hurtful things” pushes forward the narrative.
*Spoiler* There is a distinct theme of understanding one another in this game. It is on display when Ash’s bullies find him and try to take his paintbrush. When both hold the brush at the same time Ash is able to see some of the trauma the bullies have experienced such as parents divorcing, a father in prison, and verbal abuse at home. Though he does not excuse their behavior, Ash comes to understand why his bullies are so aggressive. Where Ash expresses himself through painting around Denska, the other hurt teenagers express themselves by lashing out. The old cliche, “Hurt people do/say hurtful things” pushes forward the narrative and even becomes a motivation for Ash later in the story.
Depending on your own tastes, Concrete Genie’ s biggest gameplay hurdle may be the use of the Dualshock 4’s motion controllers. The use of these controllers make me feel nostalgic for Infamous: Second Son’ s graffiti art, except better. Where Second Son used stencils, Ash is able to choose from the collected pages of his sketchbook to combine different features and designs in a more fun, open way to the players tastes and creativity. Using the motion controllers gives the feeling of carefully choosing where to place a feature, how long to make it, and how many to use making each landscape and genie truly unique to the player. The genie designs, unless edited, stay with the player throughout the game. Depending on the direction you move the brush you can make a genie bipedal or walk on all fours. The motion controls can be toggle in the games options menu. The developers stated that they avoided a scoring or appraisal system to the painting because they wanted the player to be expressive and not fearful of judgement.
The pages you reacquire allow you to customize your genies with tails, horns, antenna, ears, and various body types. The various base colors that you unlock through the game allow you to solve different puzzles. The trophy list is wonderful and encourages you to slow down and spend time with your creations. For example, one trophy might require waving at your genies three times, another will require you to sit with your genies at a painted campfire. Some of my favorite trophies were watching your genies eat snowflakes you have painted into the landscape and creating a double rainbow (“What does this mean!?!). The game was as creative with its trophies as it was its creations and world building.
Concrete Genie does miss opportunities to expand the genies abilities or even Ash’s own abilities with a brush. What if Ash used his brush to paint working doors or waterfalls that could extinguish flame? The limitations Pixelopus made were intentional but could have turned the game into something so much more. There also is little incentive in really customizing the genies. I found myself wanting to progress the story more and not really investing a lot of time in adding extra features to a genie but instead making them very basic, with maybe a furry body and horns.
*Spoiler* The final one to two hours of the game introduces combat. Due to certain plot points that will be left unsaid, your genies are corrupted and become combative. Your paint brush becomes a weapon that discharges elemental based projectiles like fire, wind, and lighting. Once the genies have been restored to the original forms the combat elements are again removed but you get to keep the ‘paint-skating” ability that allows Ash to move quickly through Denska.
The artstyle of Concrete Genie is unique as it seemingly has two art styles built into it, Ash, the bullies, and the rest of Denska look like some sort of claymation piece in the way of Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline, though not as creepy. Meanwhile the landscapes and genies that Ash paints look hand drawn, bright, and bring life to an otherwise dismal and dreary city. The music and sound engineering are top notch. All of the sounds made by the genies or by the brush moving all add life to the the world while the soundtrack matches the tone and themes over and over again. Relistening to the music from the game reminds me of particular scenes from the story which goes to show that Pixelopus nailed the soundtrack.
Though not perfect, Concrete Genie is so satisfying to play. There are few other games that have felt as moving, unique, or innovative in such a crowded game market. Concrete Genie is short, only $30 brand new, and leaves a strong impression. It won best Family Game at Gamescom and was nominated for several others. It is well worth the time whether you are creative or not. The game does a fantastic job accommodating seasoned artists and the person who is a pro at stick figures.
Note for Parents
Concrete Genie is rated E10+ for fantasy violence. *Spoilers* Once your genies are corrupted they take on a darkened blackish form and they may be scary for younger audiences. Kids who are close to the recommended age will likely enjoy watching or even using the controller to create their designs. There is no language or adult content in the game aside from bullying. As the story develops you discover some of the trauma that the bullies have experienced in their past which may hit close to home for some children and teenagers.