As I watch the tulips I just painted with my DualShock controller sprout to life on the once bare wall, swaying to and fro with illuminated colour and vibrancy, my heart's instantly enchanted by the creative charm of Concrete Genie. Pixelopus' adventure, with its uniquely heartfelt story bursting with imagination, surprises me just as much as it delights.
Now, I'll be the first to admit I'm not the most artistic person you'll ever meet, so when I first heard that Concrete Genie's mechanics involve painting using the DualShock 4's motion controls, I didn't know what to make of it. At the beginning you get a little tutorial in Ash's sketchbook to get a feel for moving your controller around and colouring in different genie designs our creative teen hero has sketched out. It takes me a moment to get the hang of it, and I start to wonder how well this would actually work when I'm painting an entire town. Fortunately, Concrete Genie alleviated any fears I had about the controls within the first 15 minutes of playtime.
Release date: October 8, 2019
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Concrete Genie follows the story of a young bullied teenager by the name of Ash who tries to escape his troubles through his art. We first meet Ash in the now abandoned seaside town of Denska that has fallen victim to pollution. In a beautifully animated sequence, we see the town as it was before. Full of life and light in picturesque pastel colours, Ash's remembrance of the how Denska used to be starkly contrasts the present gloomy state of the seaside town, which has been infected by a mysterious purple mould Ash calls "the darkness". After the bullies get ahold of Ash's sketchbook, they rip its pages out and scatter them to the winds. Ash gets pushed into a tram that takes him to the town's lighthouse, and as he tries to recover the sketchbook pages, a drawing of a genie called Luna comes to life and leads him to magical paintbrush infused with special powers. The young creative sets out to restore the town and overcome the darkness with this unique paintbrush, but just like a good detailed painting, there's so much more to the story than you might expect.
Art in motion
In order to progress through the story, you paint on buildings and walls using Ash's design tool set, which are pre-made drawings from his sketchbook that you can paint across surfaces by doing horizontal and vertical motions with the controller. It's actually easy to do and, more importantly, very enjoyable. From streaking a smattering of stars across a wall covered in graffiti, to adding rainbows, trees, flowers, and all kinds of colourful natural elements, it's so delightfully simple and pleasing to bring a wall to life with a beautiful artwork you've composed. The town is divided up into four areas – the Lighthouse, the Fishing Port, the Hydroelectric Plant, and the Waterways – and your paintings have the power to light up bulbs that hang around the different zones of the town. By lighting up all the bulbs you clear an area, and little by little you get to see how your artwork starts to revive the desolate setting.
Genies, the magical creatures Ash creates in his sketchbook, can be brought to life and called to you using your paintbrush in different areas of the town. With three elemental types of Genies – fire, electric, and wind – they are essentially companions and each type has a different skill that can help you progress through blocked paths in different areas. So, for example, a fire Genie can burn tarp that may be covering an object you need to reach or that's stopping you from accessing a location, while electric types can power up fuse boxes to open gates. Outside of their practical uses, Genies really feel like your friends who add so much personality to Ash's journey.
Whenever you paint on the walls, the genies can interact with you and with your art to make your paintings feel even more alive. With sweet touches like being able to give them a wave, play with them, or tickle them with your paintbrush, it's easy to become attached to them. Throughout the town you'll find pages that unlock more features you can add to your Genie creations. From picking tails, ears, and little extra details, everyone's genies will look different, as will the overall look of your town since you can paint and create whatever looks you want. I created an electric Genie with a mushroom cap on its head and quickly fell in love with my little Toad-like friend. Having the power to design every Genie really makes you feel like you have a unique bond. The Genies will also request certain designs for you to paint, and making them happy fills up the paintbrush's charged ability known as Superpaint that's used to purify any walls covered in the purple darkness.
Adventuring with the Genies gave me that same feeling of childlike wonder I used to get when I'd imagine my favourite stuff toys coming to life and keeping me company. They're incredibly endearing, and in such a dark setting, they truly shine through with their lovable little quirks and colourful personalities.
The power of creativity
The town of Denska once had just as much colour and personality as Ash's genies. But, as you soon find out by discovering newspapers throughout your journey, the town's current state is a result of an environmental disaster. The idyllic animated sequence at the start (that shows how Denska was before) does a good job of emphasising just how much of an impact it this disaster had. It's not just a town after all, it's an entire community of people who have been affected – they've lost their livelihoods and their homes. At the heart of Concrete Genie there's a message of hope that drips through all of its dark layers. Aside from the fact that the paint has magical purifying powers, making painting the core mechanic of the game also drives home how powerful creativity and imagination can be. There's something so uplifting about the way Ash is determined to use his artwork to try and restore what was lost and rid the town of its darkness in more ways than one. It evokes the message that as bad as things get, there's always hope that we can turn things around, and it's particularly poignant given today's current climate.
One of the most appealing aspects of Concrete Genie is the character you play. Aside from the fantastic voice acting that brings Ash to life, the artistic young boy is such a wonderful role model that you can happily believe in. At first, it feels like Ash uses his art to escape his troubles, but as the story develops, you begin to realise that his creativity and imagination actually enables him to face and overcome his own darkness as well as the town's. The theme of bullying is a tough subject to broach, but Pixelopus does it with care and sensitivity, and without wanting to spoil anything too much, the story explores a different side to the bullies that will really make you reassess how you view them.
Paints a pretty picture
The story and the themes it explores are made all the magical thanks to how beautiful Concrete Genie looks. Its distinctive style and uniquely animated characters pack it full of personality and charm, and the music really brings the whole picture together. It truly is a work of art. Thankfully it features a photo mode so you can get shots of the artworks you've created. One neat feature it includes is the photo mode's Replay option, which lets you see your painting come to life on the wall in the same order you painted the different elements. Outside of the main story, there's also a Free Paint mode so you can return back to any section and let your paintbrush loose on the walls with any design you've unlocked. Once I finished I could hardly wait to dive back in and mess around with all my designs to compose a series of pretty pictures in the Fishing Port.
An additional option Pixelopus has implemented is an accessibility feature that lets you use the right stick to paint instead of motion controls. I tried it out to see just how well it worked in the motion controls stead, and it's a great option for those who can't use motion controls or would prefer to paint with the stick.
Overall, Concrete Genie took me about 6-7 hours to complete, but it felt like the right amount of time to prevent it from feeling too repetitive or overly long. In all honesty, I enjoyed myself so much that I didn't even notice how much time was passing me by, and that's the best compliment I could ever give it. Concrete Genie feels like a rare gem of a game in the overflowing sea of releases we're seeing this year. It takes you on a heartfelt journey bursting with so much creativity, imagination, and warmth, and it's one I won't soon forget.
Reviewed on PS4.