Concrete Genie is not a challenging game, at least not in the traditional sense. Beyond a creeping purple pollution and a group of bullies that prowl the streets, your hometown of Denska, a ramshackle port turned ghost town, is a strangely welcoming place, oppressed not by some malevolent evil but rather by a lack of hope. Pixelopus’ sophomore game instead challenges you to explore your own creativity, providing a simple, intuitive yet surprisingly robust set of tools to unleash your imagination on every shack, sewer and surface of its dilapidated dystopia.
The game gives reason to your acts of restorative vandalism; Ash, the paradigm of every angsty, artsy teen – a protagonist I found all-too-relatable – finds responsibility flung upon him as Luna, a ghostly doodle of his own creation, comes to life, bestowing upon him a magical, baseball bat sized paintbrush with which to repel the encroaching darkness.
The act of progressing through Denska’s mini open-world is simple. Bathing each zone in light and colour allows you to execute your masterpiece; a sprawling tableau that purifies that area once and for all. However, the game excels at making this relatively simple task ceaselessly compelling. While a few nonchalant strokes would fulfil the game’s criteria to continue, I felt a duty to both Ash and Denska and a compulsion within myself to bespatter each new, naked wall with only my finest works of art. Concrete Genie’s greatest accomplishment is that it invites you to linger on its core mechanic, not out of necessity but simply for the joy and gratification it brings you.
And the game empowers you with some of the best use of the SixAxis motion controls yet, six years into the PS4’s lifecycle. The glide of your controller strikes the perfect balance between precision and fluidity and captures the liberating feeling of creating art perfectly. Collecting the scattered pages of your sketchbook expands your library of designs, pushing your creativity as you iterate on landscapes and genies alike. A dozen genie bodies, from Pixar-inspired furballs to ghostly jellyfish, provide the base for countless adornments, with antlers, ears, tails, and all manner of fantastical appendages, making each of your familiars feel uniquely yours.
Each genie brims with personality, endearing themselves further each time they lollop across your concrete canvas. More than idle companions, these friends are key to saving Denska, aiding you every step of the way. Fire, electric and wind elemental genies surpass their 2D confines, interacting with the world beyond to power up generators or blow away obstacles. Similarly, appeasing them with their favourite designs, be it swaying neon trees or shimmering swathes of fireflies, fortifies your brush with Super Paint, letting you purge thick concentrations of sinister purple grot that afflicts your town.
All of this vibrant creativity and oppressive corruption is portrayed in a striking, cohesive brew of art styles which acts to heighten the contrast. Ash and his antagonizers feel straight from the mind of Henry Selick, the presence of his dark, handcrafted stop-motion sensibilities present in both their aesthetics and movements. The genies themselves truly feel like the product of a burgeoning young artist’s mind, somewhere between the vivid creation of Pixar and the strange creatures seen that pour forth from illustrator John Mortensen’s imagination. Conversely, cutscenes telling tales of Denska’s former glory are rendered in beautiful, stylized 2D animation awash with bright pastel tones that echo a more hopeful time.
Newspapers strewn throughout the world document Denska’s downfall, and the town’s tale of environmental disaster and social unrest they unveil feels like a pertinent parable rather than heavy-handed commentary. Most affecting of all, however, are the stories of your fellow abandoned children. Flashbacks of broken homes and abuse humanize the bullies that pursue you, further grounding this magical tale in the real and relatable.
Concrete Genie is a joy. A refreshing, rewarding and thoroughly charming game that excels in both its emotive storytelling and spellbinding gameplay. While the light combat mechanics introduced in its final act feel a little superfluous, they do help to accentuate the stakes of the game’s climax and make the post-game peace feel all the more earned. A wealth of worthwhile collectables, inventive trophies and a brief but fun VR mode add longevity beyond the perfectly paced six-hour story, and the ability to zip around Denska with the Jet Set Radio-inspired Paint Skate power adds extra incentive to explore all the town has to offer.
Concrete Genie PS4 Review
- Overall - Must Buy - 9/109/10
Short, sweet and thoroughly inventive, Concrete Genie's charming, poignant modern fable is a celebration of art and imagination that excels in empowering players to explore their own creativity.
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Reviewed using PS4 Pro.