Imagine if your best friends lived on the pages of a sketchbook or the walls of an abandoned coastal town. Imagine drawing your brush across a surface, and not just bringing the image into existence, but actually bringing it to life. Imagine being able to quite literally push back darkness and negativity with light, positivity, and friendship. Concrete Genie is all of those things and more packed into a game that initially feels small, yet bursts at the seams with a mountain of heart and themes, both obvious and subtle.
Ash is a bullied boy forced to leave his childhood home of Denska when an oil spill destroys the local economy. He yearns for the days when the docks and streets were filled with life, and he returns to those empty alleys to spend time alone with his sketchbook. Ash isn’t alone though. A group of local bullies uses the forsaken town as a playground, free from the watchful eye of parents and authorities. Ash’s solitude is broken when the bullies find him, assaulting him both verbally and physically, and then ripping his notebook pages out and scattering them to the winds. Finally they shove him in a tram car to the lighthouse, leaving Ash to fend for himself at the spooky and supposedly haunted beacon of the town.
It turns out the lighthouse is haunted, kind of, but it’s here that Ash meets a friend he had only seen on the page; a creature he had drawn and come to call Luna who gives him a magic brush and the power to bring his creations to life. You’ll spend the next few hours collecting pages of Ash’s sketchbook and painting living images across the walls of Denska, using his art to drive back the creeping darkness that is a literal representation of negativity. All the while, Ash must avoid the roving band of bullies that want to use him as a physical and emotional punching bag. Don’t worry, this isn’t a stealth game. Ash is pretty limber and can easily avoid confrontation as long as you don’t walk straight into it.
Painting is done using the DualShock 4’s motion controls by default. That may sound cumbersome to some, but I quickly found it to be a very intuitive system that was simple to use. If you want to opt for more standard controls, using the control sticks to move the cursor, there is an alternate control scheme, but the game loses some of its fluidity if you opt to go in that direction. I encourage you to give motion controls a fair shot before committing to switching. You might be surprised.
Ash gains the ability to create creatures called genies who can help him overcome certain obstacles and continue to light the way through Denska. And the art—whether genie or something else—stays on the walls, so as you wind your way back and forth through these narrow streets (and perhaps a few other locations), everything you’ve painted remains there in beautiful vivid motion. The genies will also follow you around, sticking to their two-dimensional surfaces in creative ways. They’ll play with you, with objects next to their walls, and even with the specific things you paint for them, lending a playful air and strengthening the bond and connection with your creations.
Don’t worry if you don’t have a creative bone in your body though. Concrete Genie is guided art. You can select what element you want to slap onto a wall (as long as you’ve collected that sketchbook page) and the whole thing will adapt as you continue to paint. Fill the sky with stars. A moon. Trees. Make it rain or stick a blazing fire next to a cave of icicles. You’re free to make nearly every wall in the town your own. This same feature is used for the genies. A wide variety of options allows you to customize them in your own way, from size and shape to what kind and how many ears, tails or other twisty decorations they have coming off of them. It was amazing traveling through the town and seeing the things that I had made glittering, dancing, and waving back at me.
Occasionally the walls can get a little too crowded with genies, cluttering everything up and making each new one less and less meaningful. There is a fascinating curveball that the game throws at you which could have felt more meaningful had I spent more time detailing one genie than creating a smattering of creatures all over town. Instead, I had a hodgepodge of creatures trailing me all over town, and when I’d call for one to help me out, they’d all come running. Trying to interact with a genie is difficult to do when there are five of them vying for your attention and playing around with the environment you’ve created. Don’t expect the apples you’ve painted to stick around long. These creature are hungry.
Like a LAIKA
Concrete Genie’s art style extends beyond the walls of the town, though. The almost claymation stop-motion appearance of the characters reminds me vividly of the award-winning LAIKA film studio, a company known for its incredible stop-motion animated films like Coraline, ParaNorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings. It wasn’t just the visual style that keyed off the LAIKA comparison, however. The themes, story, and general progression of the game’s narrative (which speaks directly to Concrete Genie’s evolving gameplay mechanics) falls right in line with the kind of quality work I have come to expect from LAIKA. In fact—and I’ll dive more into themes and story in a moment—can we get LAIKA to work directly with Pixelopus on a film version of Concrete Genie? I’d be ecstatic if this happened.
Like LAIKA (can you tell I’m trying to convince you to go watch a LAIKA film or two?), Concrete Genie’s themes are many-fold and layered. On the surface, there’s the story, which is entertaining enough in its own right, but it’s Pixelopus’ ability to capture a lot of subtlety and depth that really drives Ash’s artistic adventure through loneliness. It’s a game about being bullied, and about empathy. It’s about art. It’s about connections and friendship and the power of creativity and having a creative outlet. It’s about how damning and dark negativity can be, and about how even one person’s positive light can repel that darkness. And, if taken quite literally, it’s also a message about environmental and social impacts of things like a reliance on oil and big industry.
Without diving too deep into spoiler territory, Concrete Genie holds some powerful moments that give Ash an opportunity to connect with the bullies, to empathize and understand them. It was a game that regularly had me smiling, and then on the verge of tears, and then smiling through those tears. He’s a good kid, that Ash. And if we take a moment to learn from him, maybe we can be a little bit better ourselves.
At about five hours long, Concrete Genie felt like the perfect length for its message and themes. If it were any longer, it would have felt like it was treading water, so the pacing in terms of momentum on its narrative and themes feels ideal. However, the relatively shorter length can mean that some of the late-game gameplay systems aren’t quite as explored as much as they could have been. Concrete Genie is definitely divided into very distinct segments with a stark contrast between them. That sudden change does help bolster the emotional impact of the themes it aligns with though, so it really comes down to what you are playing for (and perhaps a good reason why Concrete Genie’s marketing has largely focused on one side of that contrast).
Concrete Genie also sports a photo mode. Though it doesn’t have the complexity of something like God of War or a Naughty Dog joint, the stunning art style makes for brilliant images regardless of not having many of those deeper options. The dark abandoned town of Denska contrasted against Ash’s bright moving creations, where even my still screenshots seemed to be full of life. Going to hammer on that LAIKA point again here.
Finally, there are two bonus VR modes that come packaged in with the game. For the sake of this review, they were not considered when scoring. Not everyone has a headset, so it doesn’t make sense to grade the game on features that not everyone can access, but they do at least warrant mentioning. If you have a headset, you’re in for a real treat as you get to dive into Ash’s world, accompanying Splotch (the genie from Ash’s backpack) on journey designed just for VR. The Concrete Genie VR experience is not a VR facsimile of the main game. It’s a wholly new piece of the story that feels additive, not imitative.
Completing the VR experience opens up VR free paint, where you can go splash living creations onto the walls of Denska from a first-person point of view. This mode is much more along the lines of mirroring what the main game does, just in VR, but it’s a great way to give players the opportunity to use what they’ve collected in the main game and utilize it in VR painting. Both do require Move controllers as well. If you’ve got the means to experience them, the VR modes are a great little bonus, but Concrete Genie props itself up enough on its own to stand without them.
Concrete Genie has plenty of depth and heart, feeling freeform enough to relinquish creative control to the player, but also guided enough for those that might feel they lack the creativity or patience to make compelling art. It’s pacing is brilliant, keeping great momentum as it works its way through the narrative, even it it stumbles slightly when it comes to giving certain mechanics room to breathe. Ash’s story tugs at the heartstrings even as he remains strong in the face of overwhelming negativity. It’s a story that perhaps all of us could use in our lives, understanding how to overcome those elements of darkness with understanding and heart. And all along the way, Denska always felt like my town as I wandered back through its twisting alleys, complete with my creations, reminding me of just how far I’d come.
Concrete Genie review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on a standard PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.
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