Review: Concrete Genie

The PlayStation 4 is going through a drought when it comes to major exclusive games right now, seemingly lasting from Spider-Man to Death Stranding. Perhaps to try and compensate for this, I’ve seen quite few PS fans stick up for Days Gone, the open-world zombie game that I and several others merely wrote off as “okay” or “decent.” Not that I can’t comprehend why one would enjoy Days Gone, but why choose this as the hill to die on?

It made me wonder why none of the smaller, more acclaimed PS4 exclusives were receiving this level of passionate responses. Ghost Giant is being hailed as a charming VR adventure and Blood & Truth is an impressive VR action game that actually topped the charts in the UK, to state a couple of examples. Even if they aren’t massive titles, they clearly showcase what the PS4 can deliver when it comes to fun, creative, exclusive games. And now joining that club would be Concrete Genie, a unique third-person action/adventure game from developers Pixelopus all about the joy of creating artwork that may very well be another of this year’s hidden gems.

Concrete Genie takes place in the small coastal town of Denska, which has been gradually abandoned over time after an oil spill caused notable damage to various businesses. Oh, and the mysterious glowing substance called Darkness that grows over everything doesn’t help. Our protagonist is Ash, a teenage artist who still longs for Denska’s glory days. And after a chance encounter with some bullies leads to his sketchbook getting ripped up, he winds up heading to the lighthouse, where a mysterious being named Luna grants him the power of a magic brush that allows him to not only paint vivid landscapes, but also lets him create living wall-bound genies that can live in them, Promising to restore beauty to Denska, Ash sets out to hopefully make the Darkness go away.

Jumping to the obvious, Concrete Genie is graphically stunning. It is a game about artwork, after all. The remnants of Denska that showcase what was once a bustling factory and tourism town are impressive enough on their own, along with the unique style and facial animations for the characters, but once you get drawing on the walls, magic happens. Both literally and figuratively. The landscape elements that Ash can draw are stunning, from Northern lights and snowy peaks to totem poles and fresh apples planted on trees, with detailed grass at their feet. Watching it all pop to life is stunning every time, even when it’s something you’ve drawn with before.

But the true highlight is in the titular Genies. These are smiling, fang-mouthed, dot-eyed, noodly-limbed, sorta blobbish beings that you have to draw and bring to life, and they are adorable. They rival only the chibi versions of the main characters from Unruly Heroes as being the most ridiculously cute game characters of this year. The way they move, the way they curiously look at their surroundings, the way they interact with everything else you create from sitting on ice floes to being scared by venus fly traps…it’s just some amazing animation and design throughout all of them. They feel like those classic monsters from ’80s films that kids would try to hide from their parents and whatnot, except more cartoonish and cuddly.

And you even get several types of Genies to work with, along with several traits you can give them like different variants of horns, ears, tails and more. Of course, you have to hunt for it all. The pages from Ash’s sketchbook are scattered all over Denska, so you have to track them down, poking in garbage cans and climbing up onto the rooftops, with some nice Uncharted-esque skills. It can be a slight pain when some of the pages move around, though. I get chasing them down, but sometimes their patterns seem almost random, deliberately going out of reach on occasion. But it’s worth it (and provides a nice challenge that gives you a lot to search for and encourages exploration), because then you get to create even more elaborate and incredible Genies.

Of course, the painting aspects also make up the core gameplay as well. In order to clear away the Darkness, Ash has to light things up. Literally, as there are batches of lightbulbs all around town. The more you paint on their walls, the more they light up. Light all of the lightbulb batches up and the batch of Darkness blocking off the entrance to the next zone/level is removed. But sometimes Darkness manifests on the walls was as well and that’s where you need help from the Genies. Occasionally, they’ll request various elements to be drawn nearby, and doing so provides you with Super Paint, allowing your painting to erase Darkness. You can also interact with the Genies in general to gain Super Paint, doing little things like watching abandoned TVs, finding hidden doodles that reward you with concept art, or even just going up and tickling them or rubbing their tummies, which is easy to have an adorable reaction to.

The actual act of painting itself is fun to pull off as well. Just hit R2, and poof, you’re in painting mode. All you have to do then is just hold it down and use the Sixaxis controller’s motion controls to move the brush around, selecting what you want to draw with L1, L2 and the d-pad. It’s smooth as butter and you can even still move around with it active. You can easily scale to the roof of a market, swing the camera to a wall below on the opposite building and let creativity flow from above. Plus, such an action has the advantage of being able to paint without being noticed by Ash’s bullies.

The bullies, however, are admittedly the weakest part of Concrete Genie. I do get the desire to have have more hazards in the game beyond fall damage, accidentally jumping in water, etc. But instead of being a recurring threat that you always need to watch out for, they only seem to show up at specific points to block a path, and all it takes is one button to let out a yell and cause a distraction, where you can then immediately lose them by climbing to the roofs, where you can then slip by them. It’s not bad, but it’s no Metal Gear Solid.

The bigger flaw is that the bullies are just so…cliche. You would think that with bullying being a major concern among kids right now, this would be the perfect opportunity for a clever, nuanced take on the subject. But no, instead we get the standard bullies with Freudian excuses and issues involving their parents. Their personality does improve towards the end of the game (it helps that the plot in general is simple, yet effective, and hits some nice emotional beats), but a lot of their actions before that wander into narm territory.  I mean, they’ve spread graffiti around Denska, but all it contains is just childish insults, including one particularly painful “ART IS LAME” spread across one area. Even first-season Bulk and Skull would be facepalming over them.

Thankfully, there’s more to the obstacles than just Darkness and the Bullies. Concrete Genie also has quite a few simple yet solid puzzles, typically revolving around the three types of Genies and their powers. Red ones can burn certain objects, yellow ones can provide electrical power to certain areas and blue ones can blow stuff around. The trick is, as mentioned earlier, fighting off the Darkness so that the genies can reach them and signaling them to join you. There are a few platforming segments, mainly in the Waterways, which liven things up a bit. It’s not the most complex when it comes to platforming, but still highly enjoyable.

The gameplay does take quite a twist later on if you’re unprepared, though. Without spoiling anything, once Dark Genies show up in the final chapters, Concrete Genie suddenly switches gears into being a full-on action game, with the climbing, painting and occasional stealth section all disappearing until the post-game. Instead, now you’re skating around on paint, firing elemental attacks at enemies that you lock onto and gradually calming them down after their defeat. It is quite the one-eighty, to say the least. But once you quickly get used to it, the control is still pretty much as smooth as before and the combat is easy to pull off. It’s a dramatic change, but one that still works.

It does make one wonder if the developers were worried about concerns over length and decided to try stretching things out, though. After all, it should only take someone about three or four hours to complete the main story mode. And yet again, I have to remind people that length doesn’t matter and that the experience is still terrific regardless, but to add some replayability beyond the collectable designs, there’s a Free Painting mode unlocked after you’ve beaten the game, giving you a city full of blank canvases to work with again, making room for all of the new ideas you’ve gained. And indeed, it is a nice touch.

There is one other way Concrete Genie tries to get a little more mileage out of things, though. The front of the box recommends that you “Enhance Your Gameplay With PS VR,” but don’t expect something like Resident Evil 7 where get a version of the main game that you can play in VR. Instead you just get a separate VR mode that you access from the main menu. In it, you play around with Splotch, one of the small elemental Genies from the main game that assists you. And just like the other Genies you create, you have to use different landscape elements in order to paint the settings that make them happy in order to advance.

Again, it’s amazingly adorable stuff, and this time around, you get to play in 3D with two Move controllers, which creates more impressive visuals. And the setting of the Crystal Meadows is simple yet sweet (implying that we actually get to play in the world the Genies actually get to see), but the whole experience lasts less than an hour. Again, you do unlock Free Painting after completing it, complete with canvases based on levels you’ve played in the main game, but only the Crystal Meadows is full-on 3D and the others are just VR rooms where you can paint on the walls. It may be a cute little cherry on top of the scrumptious sundae that is Concrete Genie, but it’s a cherry so petite that it may as well not be there.

Closing Comments:

Concrete Genie could have simply been a game about painting and creating virtual pets that you can interact with and it still would have been a fantastic little game. But thanks to some fun action, nice puzzles and a beautiful world, it becomes something even more. The fun is in the creation, crafting a vivid world out of the pages you find and then letting your charming Genies play in it. It’s just one of those games that can be perfectly described as “feel-good.” You’ll walk away from it with a warm heart and a big smile on your face after the credits roll, yet end up diving back in so that you can find every secret. Concrete Genie is one of the PS4’s most notable highlights this year and PlayStation fans should be sure not to miss it.