Concrete Genie had been on my radar for awhile: It had an intriguing trailer that really struck a cord with me, and the gameplay idea behind it was creating a bit of a buzz. After completing it I’m happy to say I was not disappointed, and loved the way the developers had delicately explored the themes of childhood bullying and nostalgia.
To begin with the obvious: the game is stunning and striking in it’s visual style. From the characters, to the world to even the trophy icons: It has such a varied colour palette, and it carries out it’s goal of having an arts-and-crafts feel without looking washed out. The character’s faces almost remind me of paper-mache, and although the environment itself looks normal: the paintings you create on them become their own living neon billboards.
These are complemented by the titular “Genies” that your character, Ash, paints based on the pages in his artbook. These Genies run around the levels along the walls of buildings and infrastructure, to aid you in puzzles throughout the game. There are three types: Fire, Electric and Wind Genies, of which are gradually introduced for the duration of the game. These genies can be created wherever you see a chalk drawing of one on the ground from Ash’s childhood, and it is incredibly fun to give them bushy tails and antlers using the dual-shock’s motion controls. This does of course take some getting used to, but it’s not long before your swishing your controller as comfortably and spontaneously as you would a paintbrush. You unlock more features for your creatures by tracking down blue pages from Ash’s art book, some you have to chase as they float on the wind, and some are stuck in something like a bin or a vent, trying to get out. You can also change the appearance of your Genies whenever your near them, in case you decide you want to make use of your new pages.
Similarly, Yellow pages carry shapes and objects for you to paint onto walls as part of your paintings to liven up the town. For example one of the ones you start with is a group of stars: painting them with a quick flick of the controller spreads them across the area you aim, and suddenly you have a twinkling starry sky. It is worth noting that you can turn off the motion controls, and control the paintbrush with the analog stick, but it is so well implemented that I didn’t feel the need to. However, not every wall begins as a free canvas for you: a sludge that is called “Darkness” seems to have spread itself across the town, and part of your job is to eradicate it with “Super-Paint”. This Super-Paint is acquired by making your genies happy, by either painting something they ask you for, or by playing with them. These interactions bring you closer to the Genies, and establish a great sense of friendship and closeness, particularly as the only other physical characters you meet are the bullies.
Throughout the game, a gang of kids hang out in various places of Denska, and will chase and beat up Ash if they see him, or even throw his paintbrush away. As a result, you are encouraged to use higher ground such as roofs to stay out of their reach. You can also use the right arrow button to attract them to your location, before then evading them, and running toward their starting position to further a puzzle. Their presence is even felt outside of these sections, as you see their grafitti all over the town, carrying messages of disdain for Denska, and writing insults against Ash. Often I painted over these both as a way of removing the graffiti, but also as an excuse to just keep painting, which is a testament I think to the games’ charming and enjoyable painting mechanic.
Along with the grafitti, hints of the game’s world is carried out in newspapers you can collect throughout Denska, detailing why it was abandoned, with Ash’s comments on them sometimes helping to flesh out his own family’s struggle and connection with the town. Speaking of the story, the game deals with the subject matter of childhood bullying and nostalgia with such delicacy and powerful symbolism. Without wishing to spoil the finer details, the game explores the sources of Bullying, the ways in which children use art as a coping mechanism to express themselves, and the ways in which we remember our younger years. This is done not only through the gameplay itself, but also in some spellbinding animated cutscenes that look like living drawings and paintings. These were some of my favourite moments of the game as it showed that Pixelopus, the developers of Concrete Genie, didn’t just rely on a unique gameplay idea, but a genuinely affecting and nuanced story. It made me think of my own experience of being bullied in primary school, and I immediately connected with Ash as a result, despite the relatively small amount of dialogue. It is also because of this, that I feel Concrete Genie would be a perfect game to be played by kids in primary school, to introduce them to the concept of bullying, and explain it in a way that dodges having the stigma of boredom that children place on the classroom or Edu-tainment.
However, the game stumbles at around the halfway point, as a combat system is abruptly introduced. It is in no way unenjoyable, and is not overly difficult once you are used to it, but the way it is introduced is initially jarring and doesn’t feel like it adequately explains to you all of the tools at your disposal. For example, for a good while I didn’t realise I could heal if I had a light shone at myself. But the jarring nature of the combat is almost forgivable, as the story itself introduces a couple of twists and turns which turn Ash’s world upside down. The combat is good however once you know how it works: in addition to your healing ability, you can use standard attack and stun moves, and a ability that temporarily grounds enemies in the air. If this seems like it’s out of place for a game about bullying, then trust me when I say it isn’t when it’s in the context of the game’s story. It is likely sounding this way only because I am trying my best to be vague about the story of these sections. It also allows the game to reach both a fulfilling emotional climax, but also a fulfilling combat climax. And thankfully in that climax, the painting mechanic is not thrown away at all, but instead is an integral part of it, and is interweaved with the climax to make it all the more affecting.
This game reminds me in places of Papo and Yo, another incredible game that is well worth playing, but Concrete Genie comes with the polish that Papo and Yo seemed to lack in places: In my time with Concrete Genie, I found no bugs or glitches whatsoever. To be fair, thats to be expected as Pixelopus is a first-party developer under Sony, whereas Papo and Yo came from a smaller indie studio. All the same: the fact that I thought back to not only my own childhood, but another deeply affecting and beautiful, although considerably more adult, game as Papo and Yo is a great sign that Concrete Genie will be a game that I won’t forget. It’s a must-play and delivers what it needs to despite it’s short length of around 6 hours. It also adds re-playability with chalk drawings on the walls of Denska that you can complete for unlockable concept art and a free paint mode. And as a side note: the music rivals the beauty of the world in places, and it has an actually fun sewer level. This is one of the kinds of games I wish we saw more from the industry.
Image Source: Concrete Genie’s Store Page On Playstation