A fun and charming canvas.
Not many games incorporate the act of painting or drawing art directly into gameplay. Several notable examples of iconic games that have done so include Smilebit’s Jet Set Radio for the Sega Dreamcast and Clover Studio’s Okami for the PS2. Both games were pretty much overlooked on release, receiving long-overdue appreciation only when they were re-released or remastered on future gaming consoles/platforms.
Concrete Genie is a new PS4 exclusive by indie developer PixelOpus, with the same focus on incorporating painting or drawing into gameplay. I was initially apprehensive of this game at first, as it felt like a gimmick that wouldn’t translate well into actual gameplay mechanics. I was ultimately proven wrong, as the game did manage to win me over (despite its flaws).
In Concrete Genie, players assume the role of Ash, a young boy who lives in a small dilapidated and dreary town named Denska. He starts the game as a loner and budding artist, often doodling in his book. When a group of bullies steals his book, they rip out the pages, scattering them throughout Denska in the process.
While attempting to recover his lost pages, Ash discovers a paintbrush that can bring his creations (drawings) to life, and that his living works of art can, in turn, literally bring the light of life back into the town (which is being corrupted by darkness). He then makes it his mission to do just that, while avoiding the bullies who continue to torment him.
Just like Mickey Mouse in Junction Point Studios’ platformer Epic Mickey, the protagonist in Concrete Genie is equipped only with a paintbrush. Unlike Mickey in that underrated Nintendo Wii title, Ash lacks the ability to attack or initiate combat in any way. That’s what mainly distinguishes Concrete Genie from other platformers.
The player’s main objective in the game is to drive the darkness away from Denska. In order to do that, Ash has to turn on the lights strewn throughout the various zones in the town. He achieves this by creating Genies, painted creatures brought to life who act as his companions in his quest.
Painting in the game is accomplished by using the DualShock 4’s motion controls. Since that was the game’s default setting, I tried playing the game as the developers wanted me to. As expected, it took me a while to get used to using the controller’s motion controls to paint, which (even then) still made for a janky and uncomfortable experience.
That is why I truly appreciate that the developers have included the option to paint using your right analogue stick/joystick as an alternative instead. While this is available from the very beginning, the game doesn’t exactly inform you of that fact. I discovered it from exploring the options (which should always be customary when playing any new game).
I changed to analogue stick/joystick several hours into the game, which instantly improved my overall experience. Even if the game was made to be played with the Dualshock 4’s motion controls, let’s not kid ourselves; they’ll never be as responsive, precise and intuitive as traditional analogue sticks/joysticks.
Players paint and draw on walls in the game, choosing from an established variety of designs, patterns and shapes (more of which unlocks as you obtain and recover more of your lost pages). These include everything from suns, stars, different types of plants and animals, as well as weather effects like rain or thunder.
You basically slap any of these designs you so wish onto the empty canvass wall of any building in Denska, using the motion controls (or analogue stick/joystick) to place them in whatever position you wish. This applies for the creation of your Genies as well, with arrays of body parts of all shapes and sizes (horns, limbs, etc.).
More creatively-inclined players may be disappointed to know that they’re not really free to paint or draw anything they set their mind to. You’re relegated and limited to using pre-existing assets as fodder for your paintings, but I believe that’s actually better to provide for tighter and more polished gameplay.
Alas, it doesn’t hide the fact that what I mostly did in Concrete Genie is essentially just copying and pasting animated stickers to fulfil the game’s objectives and progress through the plot. Despite that, I like the fact that there’s no rating or grading system for the player’s paintings, which does encourage them to go wild with their creations.
Like I previously mentioned, Ash doesn’t have combat abilities until much later in the game (more on that below). This means that while you’re busy recovering lost pages, turning lights on, painting genies and eradicating darkness, the bullies will be there to kick your butt. Don’t worry though, as the game doesn’t even have a health bar, so it’s not possible to get a game over screen.
Escaping from the bullies will require you to jump on buildings and stuff, which is where the platforming comes into play. The jumping and platforming sections don’t feel as polished as it should be and comes across as just there for the sake of traversal. You don’t have to expect any Super Mario or Crash Bandicoot-levels of insane difficulty here.
If you’re worried that Concrete Genie would be boring due to the lack of gameplay, I guarantee that you’ll still have a lot of fun creating Genies and figuring out which type to use in solving puzzles, which is what you’ll be doing for the majority of the game. Some breath fire (which can burn obstacles), while some are electrically-charged (which can activate machines).
The cycle of turning on lights in each zone in Denska, creating Genies and using their abilities to progress to the next zone, and literally painting away the darkness, might get too repetitive or boring for players who expect more combat or excitement from their games.
Colour Me Bad
I won’t spoil what happens, but at a pivotal point in the game’s story, the game finally does eventually open up by adding combat, giving players dedicated buttons to not only different types of attacks but also dodging, locking-on to enemies, and a means of conveniently moving faster. It’s a bit jarring when this eventually happens, in both a good and bad way.
Combat is fun when it’s finally introduced, but unfortunately, it arrives too late into the game. Concrete Genie is a relatively short game, with its main story clocking in at only about 5 hours. The combat only comes into play in the final hour of the game, which makes players feel like they’re suddenly playing a completely different game tacked on at the last minute.
While Concrete Genie does offer post-game activities like collecting leftover collectibles and completing additional puzzles, there is currently no way of playing more of the game’s combat. Perhaps the developers plan to add more combat sections in the future, but as of right now, there’s not much incentive for players to continue playing after completing the main story (besides for Platinum trophy hunters) or replay value (unless you like tinkering with painting).
Dark And Beautiful
Concrete Genie might look like a kid’s game, but it actually explores some dark and sensitive subject matter. The main themes include the psychological impact of bullying, as well as the cycle of anger and negative feelings that lead to that in the first place. As you progress through the game, you learn how the darkness in Denska manifested itself from the negative emotions suffered by these children, stemming from dark situations like parental abuse/neglect and more.
The graphics in Concrete Genie is mesmerizing, especially when your own paintings and creations come to life, exuding a myriad of light and particle effects. The facial animations and movements in the game remind me of the stop-motion animation employed in movies like Studio Laika’s Coraline.
SIE Worldwide Studios adds another great indie PS4 exclusive to its library with Concrete Genie. Despite its short playtime and lack of focus (in terms of combat being tacked onto the last hour of the game), I cannot deny that I had fun bringing my adorable Genie companions and paintings to life, which is what matters in the end.
- Bringing Genie companions and paintings to life never gets old.
- Beautiful graphics with vibrant lighting particle effects.
- A dark story lying underneath the surface amidst all the cute Genies and painting.
- Varied of gameplay focus, especially in last part.
- Relatively short playtime.
- Limited creative options.
- Gameplay changes came in too late.
FINAL SCORE: 70/100