Release Date: Oct. 19, 2019
Platforms: PlayStation 4
For the majority of Concrete Genie’s runtime, it's a simple game about painting. When the game adds more to its formula, it becomes more exciting for sure, but I almost feel like it loses something when it turns away from that simple, compelling act of painting.
Taking place in Denska, once a bright and bustling city, now abandoned and covered in “the darkness,” negative emotion given form, players step into the shoes of a boy named Ash. Armed with a magical paintbrush, Ash can literally paint the city back to life, using his creativity to restore light and power to the city. Friendly genies are drawn to life, and can help the player solve puzzles, while a gang of bullies patrol the streets, and have to be avoided.
The story is pretty basic but is well told. Ash is a likable character, guiding the action, though he doesn’t get as much character development as the five bullies. Each of the bullies has a past that is used to humanize them, though the game is very clear that this does not excuse their actions. The real stars of the show are the genies. Each is drawn by the player, and whichever features are added are impressively and expressively animated as they playfully interact with Ash and his drawings.
The painting system is really impressive. To restore Denska, Ash has to paint the city’s walls to restore light. The player is given a lot of freedom to be creative and paint scenes with as much detail as they’d like. A growing selection of concepts are acquired in the form of sketchbook pages. This allows the player to select for example a tree, drawing any sort of line, straight or curved, to be the trunk, then watching as the branches and leaves grow into place.
Everything drawn by the player is permanently maintained, returning to completed areas means seeing a bright environment covered in art. To light the town, any kind of paint can be used, the whole game could be completed drawing only grass, I was surprised how often I found myself switching between concepts and really drawing out a scene on the walls, even when I could have moved to the next location.
A major plot event causes gameplay to change pretty significantly during the last third of the game. Suddenly, Ash is using his paint to actually fight the darkness. Skating around on a trail of paint, and launching red paint fireballs was really compelling at first, and a nice change of pace, but upon reflection, I would have been happy if the game really were just walking around and painting walls. From a gameplay perspective, the radically different systems for movement and combat are really well-executed, though I felt enemies had a little too much health, making battles feel a little drawn out.
Concrete Genie is a celebration of creativity, and its low stakes make for a nice breath of fresh air. I constantly found myself taking the time to plan out and create art. Concrete Genie excels at making the act of making art easy and accessible, and it makes for a great, low-impact distraction from pandemic life.