Concrete Genie Review
Watch the beginning of Concrete Genie in this video:But the real reason I kept scrawling across Denska’s blackened walls was down to something far more positive: it’s so extremely satisfying to do so. Ash’s magic-imbued paintings are made up of a collection of pre-existing sketches, earned by collecting those bully-scattered pages. These range from the obvious (trees, plants, water), to the more abstract (turquoise gusts of wind, the stuttering appearance of lightning), to the odd (gigantic fantasy mushrooms, genie-covered totem poles). Almost any blank wall can become your canvas, and painting is as simple as picking the sketch you want, then holding R2 while tilting the controller (marking this one of the only uses of Sixaxis motion control I’ve ever actually enjoyed) – it’s something like willing pastel-hued neon signs into existence. In a lovely extra touch, every sketch comes with an associated musical effect as you paint it, as if you’re adding layers to the soundtrack by bringing your latest masterpiece to life.
The whole process is immediately intuitive and, thanks to smart decisions about how those sketches layer onto and behind one another, it’s also remarkably easy to make something that looks genuinely good, no matter your real-life artistic ability. In a way, this is something like a little brother to Media Molecule’s Dreams – less complicated and less truly free, but just as able to leave you feeling legitimately proud at what you’ve created with just a few sweeps of the controller.
The developer’s at pains to make clear that everything you create is there for good – numerous cutscenes, even late into the story, show your earliest creations still shimmering in the night air. It’s a little thing, but the feeling that you’re making indelible marks on the town is remarkably effective, only strengthening how much you’ll want to do a good job with every wall you choose to spruce up.
Concrete Genie: 15 Screenshots
Art for Art’s Sake
But, as I’ve mentioned, Concrete Genie is built so that you don’t have to do a good job. Your progress across Denska is measured by whether or not you’ve filled a few set walls you have to paint. For the most part, you’ll be required to slap your shifting artwork onto areas marked with hanging lights. Paint enough, and those lights begin shining. Make all the lights on a section of wall shine and it’s marked as completed. Complete all the walls in an area, and the next area will open. Mechanically, it’s simple and transparent.
Paintings are never judged on their content – they just need to cover enough space. I’m torn on how to feel about this. On the one hand, it lets those invested in the story skip through at their own pace without telling them they have to do something creative first. On the other, I’d welcome the opportunity to turn painting into a true mechanic – perhaps using sketches like items in an inventory (a campfire sketch used to burn an obstacle, a rainstorm to put out the remains). But Concrete Genie never goes that far.
As it is, the only real wrinkles are some colour-coded gates, which is where the genies come in. Genies are another act of creation – some of Ash’s sketches are of furry monster bodies, or the tails, horns, and ears that attach to them. Put these together in specific locations and your creation springs to life as a genie who’ll follow you from wall to wall, offering one of three given powers. Red genies can set fire to certain items, yellow genies can power electrical systems, and blue genies can blow certain objects across rooms.The puzzles are never more complicated than “oh I need another new genie” but, again, I found myself invested in making interesting designs, simply because they were such a pleasure to watch when animated – cowering from rain, huddling around a campfire for warmth, or begging me for another cartoon apple. Pleasing genies also earns you Super Paint, which essentially acts as a gorgeous firehose for the creeping purple darkness that’s infested certain walls and needs to be cleaned away before any new artworks get started.
All of this creativity is coupled with some extremely light stealth, as Ash’s gang of bullies roam around town in search of him. Again, the challenge is meagre to non-existent – if they’re in your way, just scamper to a rooftop and use the D-pad to shout and draw them to a different area. Even the punishment for being caught is minimal – they just throw you in a dumpster and leave. Story concerns aside, the idea here seems to be to offer a change of pace in the open world rather than a true stumbling block for less-skilled players.
Oils and Water
This seesaw between painting and stealth – Tactical Expressionist Action, if you will – makes up the bulk of Concrete Genie but, at a certain point, it sees fit to become an action game on top of all that (Pixelopus has been open about this since it began previewing Concrete Genie, but I won’t spoil the story reasons for why it happens). Whatever the reasons, after that shift Ash’s brush becomes a tool of destruction as much as creation.
It’s a bold move. Not many games see fit to become, well, a completely different kind of game a number of hours into their campaign. Sadly, it’s a move I admire for its courageousness more than I actively enjoy the resulting gameplay. Concrete Genie’s action ideas look good – repurposing your genies’ elemental powers into flashy attacks with different effects – but every fight feels like a slog because you have to chase enemies around town, chipping away at long health bars using one of three buttons. Amidst an experience built on artistic freedom, it feels distinctly limited by comparison.
Thankfully, this combat section is a relatively small piece of Concrete Genie as a whole, and its best addition actually adds to the elements I really enjoy. Combat comes with the ability to hold L2 and ‘paint skate’ around town – the clearest connection to Pixelopus’ main inspiration, Jet Set Radio. It feels fantastic (any open-world game without some kind of added skating mechanic will, from here on, be unsatisfactory to me), and instantly makes post-game free-roaming less of a traipse.
And it’s a post-game I’m looking forward to continuing with. Yes, there are gaps in my sketchbook – pages featuring genie parts aren’t marked on the map, making them a genuine treasure hunt – but I’m more interested in the gaps on Denska’s walls. The freedom to paint almost anywhere makes me want to fully cover the town in my own designs, then jump into the well-appointed photo mode to admire the sheer extent of my handiwork. Perhaps more than anything else, that urge is testament to just how satisfying the painting system is.