Concrete Genie Review
Concrete Genie follows the heartwarming journey of a bullied teen named Ash, who escapes his troubles by bringing his colorful imagination to life in his sketchbook, while exploring his hometown of Denska – a once bright and bustling seaside town now polluted by Darkness.
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4 (PS4 Pro Unit) — PSVR played on base PS4
Cast: Simon Lathrop, Lily Sanfelippo, Michael Johnston, Vinay Edwards, Jake T. Getman, Kelli Jordan
Developer: Pixel Opus
Directors: Jeff Sangalli (art), Dominic Robilliard (creative)
Writer: Evan Skolnick
Design: Jing Li, Christian Chang, Matt Boland
Art: Becky Roberts, Lucie Roberts, Taylor Lambert, Lancing Love Chen, Ashwin Kumar, Bob Archibald, Daniel Wilkes
I played through Concrete Genie in two four-hour sessions and I would have easily done it in one if I could. From the moment the game begins it feels special, unique and something to stand apart from everything else releasing this year or the next. It’s like playing through a Laika animation movie like Kubo and the Two Strings or ParaNorman. The inspirations through to its story and art also feel very inspired by Tim Burton, Neil Gaiman or Jim Henson. Concrete Genie is one of the best games of the year and I’m ready to sing its praises because I want you to support this beautiful game.
You play as Ash, a lonely kid who spends his spare time visiting the run-down and abandoned fishing village of Denska. Ash grew up here before everyone abandoned it due to ever-increasing pollution plaguing the water and seemingly the people as well. Now the village is covered in a mist of darkness, it’s decrepit and only visited by Ash as he reminisces of his childhood and a group of bullies whose only goal is to vandalise everything in Denska and bully Ash if they catch him.
Ash is an artist and as the game begins you get a very clear sense that his drawing-book is his life, his closest friend and how he finds hope in the darkness. Which, of course, is why the group of five bullies tear it up and send Ash’s drawings across Denska before shoving him on a cable-cart and sending him off to Denska’s Lighthouse. But it is here Ash finds an over-sized magical brush that allows him to bring his drawings to life, and light up the world around him and destroy the pollution around the Lighthouse. With an act of newfound courage and mission, Ash heads back intending to destroy the infection and virus spreading across Denska and save his much-loved childhood fishing village.
In some ways, Concrete Genie feels like a PS2 game. It’s not quite a platformer, but with the little roof hoping and climbing you do, my brain started bringing Sly Cooper to the front of my thoughts, though Concrete Genie’s main gameplay is utterly unique. At any point, Ash can start drawing on nearly any location in Deska with your main goal being to draw near lightbulbs around Denska which will light them up, and in turn, the entire town. You are limited to drawing only what objects Ash has found so far in his lost pages which are floating around Denska thanks to the wind and the bullies. Early on this are a collection of stars, grass, some plants and sun. But how you place them, what their direction of origin is from is all up to you and although it’s not free-hand drawing, you soon start feeling very much like an artist creating these wonderful creations across Denska.
It’s not just the vibrant colours of meadows glowing in the distance that you’re creating either, you’re also bringing to life Ash’s Genies. At certain locations, you’ll be able to draw a genie, and like everything else the types you can create open up as you find more of Ash’s pages. These creatures will move along any wall that isn’t covered in the polluted-goo, but you can clear that for them with Super-Paint which your Genies fill you up with as long as you keep them happy by drawing their requested items.
There are enough variables and player choice within the drawings you’ll place across Denska to light it up and the Genies that my Denska wouldn’t look like yours. Not only are you free to paint whatever you wish around the town to fulfil the objectives, but you also unlock pages that allow you to draw features onto your Genies. These can be swirling tails, claws, even roses and where you draw them on your Genies is up to you.
You do all of the painting with the PS4’s motion controls as well — although you can turn it off and assign it to the right analog stick — and at first, I thought it was going to annoy me, but I quickly started to appreciate how your brush will flick and glide, semi-realistically.
The first several chapters of Concrete Genie are a beautiful and warm journey through Denska. Ash, in the face of several bullies, pushes through them to save Denska and along the way learns more about them. At one stage he says to himself “I guess there’s a reason they’re so mean… it’s doesn’t make it okay though.” A poignant line and a good example of how Concrete Genie handles its bullies. They’re not just bad characters to fill the stereotype of an 80’s movie, they have their own stories and how developer Pixel Opus handles them is commendable.
Although you have to do your best to dodge the bullies as they loiter at certain locations the first few hours of Concrete Genie are otherwise euphoric and relaxing as Ash paints the town back to life and creates new Genies who begin to take over the walls of the town. For the most part, they do just play like puppies or young children in the background, apart from when you need them to help clear a path with the red Genies being able to burn a cloth in the way, or a yellow Genie being able to jump-start electricity boxes. And it’s because you have so much control and participation in everything that’s happening that this giant canvas that is Denska becomes such a joy to fill in and explore with your new friends. It’s a simple joy painting stars across building to light the way; watching your Genies laugh and play in the distance and finding Ash’s pages hidden inboxes.
CONCRETE GENIE — PSVR
Concrete Genie features a whimsical and charming VR mode that will bring a smile to your face but doesn't have massive longevity. As Ash, you paint in a 3D space and this time sees the objects come to life around you, be that flowers at your feet or stars in the sky. It took me about an hour to play through what is the 'story' and then unlock free play, which, although calming to play and beautiful to paint in, I don't see people booting up to play often.
Concrete Genie is undeniably beautiful and as the game progresses and you light up more and more locations I was ever more thankful for the inclusion of a photo mode to take it all in. Developer Pixel Opus has melded two types of animation here to fantastic effect. It’s handcrafted with care and with an obvious love for stop-motion work and it shows as the characters are key-frame animated and their faces all feature hand-drawn facial animations that pull together this very children’s book style that is undoubtedly unique and not something I have seen any other game attempt before. Considering the size of Pixel Opus, I have no idea how their art team did what they did here. Whenever Concrete Genie takes the controls away from you for a cutscene I’d nearly forget I was playing a game and not just watching a new movie from Laika Animation and that’s the highest praise. Watching your creations come to life in Concrete Genie is easily one of my favourite experiences of 2019.
An original and emotional score from Sam Marshall ties Concrete Genie’s pieces together wonderfully. With a sombre tone at times, but whimsical fantasy as Ash creates wonder across Denska. I’ve been listening to it a lot since finishing the game and it's also one of my favourite game soundtracks of the year.
One of the harder things to discuss with Concrete Genie is it’s later chapters and change in gameplay mechanics. I’m going to be very brief, even though it has been shown briefly in trailer and preview coverage, but there is suddenly some combat added in the last third of the game. And as odd as it may sound to just shake things up and add combat into a game in it’s final third, it just works and makes perfect sense within the game’s story. Which is a testament to how well the story and gameplay within Concrete Genie constantly complement one another. But to be as vague as possible about it, eventually, some bad Genies show up in Denska and Ash learns to use his brush as a projectile weapon against them. Combat is secluded to several key encounters and each one has emotional weight and story to it. It’s fun, fast-paced and never felt tacked on or weird, which given its late addition is the true success here.
My only complaint about Concrete Genie, if you can call it that, is that the game doesn’t have HDR. I did play on my PS4 Pro on a 4K TV and it looks, as I’ve mentioned several times, stunning, but the lack of HDR in a game like this feels like such a missed opportunity and I hope Pixel Opus can patch it in down the road.
Sometimes you just play a game that hits all the right notes for you and Concrete Genie has done that for me. I love this game, its characters, charm and the beautiful world that let me not just feel like an artist but become one. Concrete Genie has a warmth to it and I felt like the team at Pixel Opus put their hearts into this and the story and themes don’t come off forced, cheap, or playing the same old-tune we’ve heard before, but instead, real and honest. For all that, Concrete Genie is one of the year's best games and a special gem every PS4 owner should play.
(Concrete Genie code provided for review)