Things are rarely what they appear to be on the surface. That’s what I’m taking away from Concrete Genie.
This artistic adventure from Pixelopus is one of the most heartwarming experiences I’ve played through on PS4. It’s a short tale of bullying and escapism, leveraging game mechanics from a wide variety of games but presenting them in a way that feels fresh. And if you want to experience it in the best way possible, you should take a punt and buy it right now, before reading the rest of this review: Concrete Genie is a game that you’re best going into blind.
Need to know more before splashing the cash? Well, here goes.
Denska is overcome with negativity. A small town, families and businesses abandoned it years ago, leaving its streets to be the haunting grounds for a group of troublesome bullies. Playing as Ash, it’s a run in with the bullies that starts your adventure. They steal the notebook in which he loves to doodle, ripping out its pages. Then they shove him in a cable car that leads to a haunted lighthouse. But it’s there that Ash meets the mysterious yet lovable Luna. One of Ash’s creations brought to life, Luna wants you to restore Denska to what it once was, and provides a magical paintbrush with which you can complete the task.
It’s fair to say that Concrete Genie is a game of two parts. The first two thirds of the game are all about cleaning up Denska and bringing light back to it. To do that, you move through three areas, illuminating the lights within each of its zones. They’re easy to find, but if you get stuck there’s a handy map that shows you where they all are. Concrete Genie certainly isn’t a game that’s going to challenge you. At least not the first part of it, anyway. Although there is some puzzling involved that will make you put your thinking cap on, and plenty of opportunities to be creative.
Restoring power to the many lights found within Denska simply requires you to paint on nearby walls. Thankfully it’s easy to do. After whipping out your paintbrush with the push of a button, you can use either motion controls or the right analogue stick to move a pointer around the screen. You then press the right trigger, et voila! You’ve made a work of art. It’s as easy as that. You’re not going to be actually drawing anything yourself though, you merely select objects to draw from your library. Painting them pretty much just determines their size and angle.
That’s not to say you can’t create some detailed and unique pieces of work though; Concrete Genie‘s painting system is robust. And you’re not penalised if you’re not particularly artistic, either. It doesn’t matter if what you create is a masterpiece or not, you just need to bring some life to them walls. Though you’ll find that there are some walls that you can’t paint on, as they’re covered is a strange purple substance. You need special paint given to you by a Genie for those. Luckily you’re given a number of sprites throughout your adventure that allow you to summon Genies at certain locations. Starting with their head, you paint their bodies then adorn with with as many accessories as you please.
Genies are the life and soul of Concrete Genie. They’re central to your progression, as without them you can’t clear the purple ooze and light up all the lights, and they can also affect objects in the environment to clear up obstacles that stand in your path. And did I mention how goddamn cute they are? They’ll often stop and request you to draw something, and you’ll always oblige not only because you pretty much need to, but also because you’ll want to make them happy. They’re digital avatars, but their joy is infectious. You can even play games with them and give them a good tickle if you want.
After summoning a genie its stays in the world, following you around or doing its own thing. You can always try to summon nearby genies to your position if you need their help, providing there are walls that enable them to do so. When they’re happy they’ll provide you with special paint, which you can use to clear up walls covered in purple ooze, and they’ll also be happy to press switches, burn sheets or blow things away for you depending on their element. They’re essentially the solution to most of the game’s puzzles. You just need to know how to use them.
Concrete Genie isn’t all about manipulating genies though; there’s some generic adventuring to be done as well. In a similar vein to the likes of Uncharted, you can climb onto boxes and use ledges to reach higher ground. A lot of time is spent exploring rooftops, using ziplines to move from one to the next. It’s basic stuff but it breaks up the action rather nicely. Pages of Ash’s notebook full of doodles can be found flying throughout Denska, too, unlocking new things for him to paint when collected. Standard landscape doodles are easy to pick up, which is handy because you need them to progress. New genie designs and accessories are a bit more tricky though; anyone that’s chased sea shanty pages in Assassin’s Creed IV will feel a sense of déjà vu.
It’s just as you think you’re about to complete Concrete Genie that it throws a spanner in the works. The bullies decide to make you their victim yet again, and something terrible happens. The result is that the last third of the game feels very different from the first two. It has you fighting genies instead of drawing and fooling around with them. And your relationship with the bullies changes, too.
Just like that, your brush becomes a weapon. You can swing it to throw fireballs, and eventually other elemental attacks. Additionally, paint at your feet allows you to skate around at high speed and quickly dodge incoming threats. Concrete Genie goes from being a slow paced adventure about painting to a fast-paced action game. But thankfully it doesn’t lose its charm. You’re not killing genies; you’re taming them. After breaking down their shields and wearing them down, you need to slowly approach them and win them over. That’s the way forward.
Concrete Genie is only a brief game – the credits roll after only six hours or so – but it feels like it packs in so much during that time. It’s free of unnecessary padding and fluff. After you’ve completed it you might return to unearth all of its secrets though. There’s also a free paint mode so you can really let your creative juices flow. And if you have a PSVR headset there’s a short VR experience, too. For the budget price set for it, it’s a decent package. The budget price doesn’t mean budget presentation, either. Concrete Genie looks gorgeous even on a standard PS4. It’s got so much style. Only the odd lacklustre animation brings it down.
It’s hard to play Concrete Genie and not be charmed by it. You can just tell that a whole lot of love has been put into making it. It may not be complex in terms of gameplay, and many of its mechanics feel appropriated from other games, but it’s surprising and unique in numerous ways. As soon as you’ve created your first genie and witnessed it joyously spring to life, you’ll fall in love with it. After that, the time flies by like you’re having fun with a friend. Concrete Genie is all about bringing light into a world that has grown dark. I think we could all do with a bit of that, couldn’t we?
Concrete Genie is available on PS4.