Right from the jump, you can easily tell that developer Pixelopus’ gorgeous action-adventure title Concrete Genie will sucker punch you square in the feels. The game opens with an adorable little dude watching helplessly as a group of unscrupulous hooligans rip his artwork to shreds, a scene that will no doubt speak to a lot of people. And while you want nothing more than for our hero, Ash, to deal some swift justice to these little punks, the story soon reveals that the kids causing him problems have their own serious issues bubbling just beneath the surface. Concrete Genie wears its heart on its sleeve, and the experience is all the better for it.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Concrete Genie concerns itself with Ash and his quest to save his hometown of Denska from the Darkness that has transformed it from a thriving fishing village into a wasteland where adults live in fear of the aforementioned troublemakers who roam the streets. After that heart-breaking encounter with the town bullies, Ash finds himself trapped on an island with the town’s supposedly haunted lighthouse. It turns out, however, that the entities that call this place home, the titular “concrete genies,” want Ash to bring this village back to life. Using an oversized magic paintbrush, our hero sets out to literally paint the town in a swathe of vivid colors, all the while avoiding the goons who wrecked his art.
Using the PlayStation 4’s motion controls or one of the thumbsticks, players will solve a slew of paint-oriented puzzles located throughout each of the town’s distinct neighborhoods. Helping Ash on his journey are the genies, a group of mischievous creatures who guide our hero on his quest to save Denska from ruin. This involves selecting different patterns and objects (apples, grass, trees, plants, suns, etc.) from a menu and splashing them across the landscape. Whenever you paint something beneath the strands of lights scattered around Denska, the neighborhood slowly begins returning to life. Completing the neighborhood will grant you some “super paint,” allowing you to obliterate some of the inky black evil that has corrupted the area.
After using that magic brush to “paint” the genies, as well as enhancing the creature with tails, ears, and other traits, Ash can create special memories and moments by doing a little unpaid commission work. For example, by arriving at certain spots sprinkled around Denska, a genie will make a certain request that correlates with one of the patterns in our hero’s paint-oriented arsenal. Does the genie look like he or she is chasing a group of winged insects? Whip out the ol’ paintbrush and spread some butterflies across the wall. Is the genie gesturing toward an open flame? Use Ash’s new-found magical abilities to paint a campfire. It might sound a bit trivial at first, but it’s these little intimate moments where Concrete Genie truly shines.
Of course, none of this would work if the game didn’t look absolutely stunning. Thankfully, Concrete Genie’s art style creates a darkly whimsical experience that practically begs you to splash gallons of paint all over the town, even when it’s not required to complete a quest. Whenever I encountered a wall or building that looked a little drab compared to the puzzle-related areas, I’d take a few minutes to create a dazzling piece of art that tied it in with the rest of its surroundings. At first, my silly little paintings didn’t look particularly awe-inspiring; the lighthouse, in particular, suffered from my amateur attempts, though I eventually rectified that problem once I’d learned a few more patterns by collecting the pages from Ash’s book from around the village.
Controlling the paintbrush will require a bit of effort on your part if you opt for the motion controls, but once you get the hang of it, splashing colors, trees, and grass everywhere becomes second nature. Additionally, Ash himself handles like an absolute dream, though I did encounter a little fussiness when attempting some of the light parkour moments while trying to escape the clutches of the town bullies. Thankfully, you don’t have to spend a lot of time managing the thugs; you can lead them away from areas you need to paint with a press of the directional pad. Also, they tend to stay out of your way unless you accidentally stumble across them while trying to finish out some puzzles. Think of them as minor speedbumps instead of annoying obstacles.
Thankfully, Pixelopus spent a little time developing the town’s resident punks and gave them relatable reasons for their obnoxious behavior. As each one comes into contact with Ash’s magic paintbrush, you’ll see that their lives have had a hand in developing their grating personalities. One thug, for instance, sneaks out of the house whenever his parents have a fight. And the more you learn about the bullies and their respective plights, the more you begin to see them as human beings, as opposed to antagonists who just want to make Ash’s life miserable. It’s a welcome touch to the story, as it gives weight and depth to the entire experience.
The autumn months never give gamers a break; it seems like we have new titles every other day, which means some of them will fall through the proverbial cracks. However, if you need a charming, emotionally rewarding holiday from Ghost Recon Breakpoint, Borderlands 3, Gears of War 5, or anything that involves aiming a gun at someone/something and pulling the virtual trigger, Concrete Genie has your back. Between the story, the “Free Paint” mode, and the VR experience, you’ll have enough to keep you busy while you’re detoxing from the carnage you’ve caused in other, more violent video games. After all, folks need a break from the chaos every now and then, and the charming concrete genies who dwell in Denska are more than willing to hand you a giant magic paintbrush and give you a digital canvas to help you unwind for a few hours.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment.
As gorgeous to behold at as it is a blast to play, Concrete Genie offers up one of the best, most heartfelt video game experiences of 2019.