Sometimes a game comes along completely out of the blue and just grabs you.
I’d never even heard of Concrete Genie until it was announced as one of the free PS Plus titles a month or two ago, so I didn’t expect a lot from it…but it’s actually amazing.
In essence, it’s a semi-open world platform game with a focus on hub exploration and simple puzzle solving (not much to separate it from all the others of that ilk) that centers around a kid called Ash who misses his hometown and, obviously, is having some trouble with a bunch of bullies. So far, so stereotypical, but there’s a fantastic little trick up its sleeve that’s practically a game in its own right (and is, if you happen to own the PSVR system and a couple of Move controllers – but a little more on that later).
After losing his artistic creations when the bullies tear up his sketchbook in the opening cinematic, Ash stumbles upon an enchanted paintbrush that allows him to bring his old drawings to life and he proceeds to paint them around town like some mystical and magical living graffiti. To begin with you have a limited range of sketched components, but this expands as you play through the game and unlock additional images by capturing them as they float around in hard-to-reach locations or behind obstacles. Just traversing the environment and collecting things is an enjoyable experience, courtesy of the lush aesthetics and well-realized locations.
If you ever played Jet Set Radio or Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, you’ll feel at home with the actual painting mechanic itself, however the way that it incorporates the tilt-axis function of the Dualshock controller is utterly ingenious. By pressing R2, the painting HUD appears and allows you to select your preferred component (trees, sun, moon etc. in the earlier parts of the game) and then you hold R2 as you tilt and glide your controller in the direction you want the image to go. While it might take a few minutes to get used to, once you get the hang of things you can spend as much or as little time as you like on each aspect of your creations. It’s hard to express just how satisfying the painting mechanic is in words, but through some brilliant uses of the in-built motion sensor you can control the arc, speed and angle of the brush as you add an ever-expanding range of images to your arsenal (as you recover the scattered pages from your book).
Each piece of a painting breathes life and light into the dark and murky depths of the abandoned city, meaning that each player can leave their own personal mark on almost every inch of brickwork they can see. While it’s possible to just ‘chuck’ some paint on a wall to unlock the next area, there’s a huge amount of pleasure to be taken from painting stunning montages that you will walk past again and again as you explore the locale. A few times I’ve gone back and added to a piece with new images or repainted parts I was less keen on. My personal favorite, so far, has to be the Northern Lights because I can spread huge auroras wherever I please and, well, they just look so damn pretty.
The main objective that carries through the narrative at the start (and continues throughout alongside additional mission types) is to light up all the dead light bulbs in the town so that you can ‘complete’ the area and open up the next sector. While the location feels small to begin with, it quickly opens up to larger spaces and offers an increasing sense of verticality as you progress. Much of the initial progression comes from finding areas of darkness or figuring out how to bypass seemingly immovable objects or attempting to access things that are initially out of reach. To help you along the way, alongside the various images you can paint, some of your creations have a more physical form and can move around any painted surface.
These creatures are the ‘Genies’ of the title and act as guides and supporters who aid you in your quest. Imagine weird mystical creatures inspired by Asian animation and you’ll have some idea of what these lovable goons look like, but you can make them craft their appearance to suit your preferences. If you find a new area with a crayon picture drawn on the ground then you are given the opportunity to create and then draw a new Genie and each time you do this you can choose from a number of options and then make the genies look however you want them to (this includes things like feet, tails, horns, moustaches etc. – you unlock more as you go along).
Once created and brought to life, the various genies can interact with each other, request specific images to be painted nearby and help you to reach new locations by combining their specific traits and skills. It’s worth noting early on that the genies will give you ‘Super Paint’ if you paint the type of items they appreciate and this can be used to clear a path to previously locked areas. The genies are the real star of the show and many possess abilities that can be put to good use (like the electric genie who can short-circuit equipment or open electronically-locked doors), but they also look brilliant and interact with the environments to stunning effect. The whole game is beautifully made and there’s a sense of satisfaction that comes in bringing light and joy into a dark and melancholic world that really speaks to the artist in us all.
While the game itself is thoroughly enjoyable, one of the aspects I’ve enjoyed most came in the form of a bonus feature designed specifically for the PlayStation Virtual Reality (PSVR) set-up. In this mode, you can don the VR headset and step into the shoes of Ash from a first-person perspective. This is separate from the main game and doesn’t have the same sense of exploration and adventure, but it gives you the chance to paint to your heart’s content and create beautiful artwork that you can admire up close. Add in the genies and their stunning animation and it’s easy to see why this is an experience that needs to be seen to be believed. In a year of isolation and missed opportunities, any chance to step beyond the confines of your own home is a bonus, but games like this make escaping to new worlds easier than ever.
Overall, Concrete Genie is phenomenal title that makes excellent use of some of the PlayStation’s best features. Stylized graphics, great audio and a level of immersion, creativity and replayability that really stands out from the crowd. Highly recommended when you want to chill and get those creative juices flowing.
Image: Dark Station