Everyone has an escape, whether it’s getting stuck in a good book, being creative, or switching off and watching TV. Finding something that helps to provide temporary distance from real life is good for your health, and everybody needs time to unwind and relax. For Ash, it’s painting. Concrete Genie tells the story of a teenager struggling to adapt to a world far removed from the one he knew. The people of Denska have disappeared, pollution has swept the town, and bullies have become a constant worry for him. His story is one most can relate to: it’s filled with times of loneliness, fear of the unknown, and being brave enough to stand up to the things that refuse to go away.
The heart of Concrete Genie is the beauty in creation. You spend the majority of the game turning factories, fish markets, power plants, and clock towers into works of art thanks to your paint brush. The town of Denska is covered in polluted walls and buildings, and it’s up to you to bring it back to life. As you go from zone to zone, ripped pages from your sketchbook fly through the streets and by collecting them allows you can paint something new. Moons, flowers, rainbows, butterflies, and stars make up just a small portion of the things you can paint. Not only can you decorate Denska in bright mosaics of imagery, you’ll bring to life friendly creatures called Genies that help you solve various puzzles on your travels.
Concrete Genie is an action adventure game where you climb up buildings, jump across rooftops, swing from poles, and do whatever you need to to evade the bullies and reach the next masterpiece you must paint. The group of bullies will chase you if they find you, but they’re relatively easier to get away from. If you find they’re blocking where you need to go, or are stood near a new page that you want to find, pressing right on the D-Pad makes you shout at them. They’ll run to wherever they heard you goading them, so you can sneak past.
Each area of Denska is split up into zones, and the way in which you move forward is by lighting up bulbs that are draped around the town unlit. By using your paint brush to light all of them up, the next zone will unlock. Not only are there light bulbs to light up, there are paintings that can be matched providing you have the correct images to do so, and painting over them unlocks concept art for you to view in the main menu. The act of painting is normally stress-free, but it does begin to get laborious especially as you’re painting the same thing for the hundredth time.
You bring up your paint brush and Memory Book, and from there you can flick through various menus to choose what you want to paint. The Genies that help you throughout the game are created when a chalked image on the ground of them is found. Once you interact with these images by pressing Square you can paint them on a wall. A neat little addition to this is variety of new items you can paint on them, providing you can find the pages within the town. Each Genie has an elemental ability: fire Genies will burn down red tarp that may be blocking your path, electric Genies power on fuse boxes that may open a gate, and wind Genies blow boxes into a position where you’re able to climb on.
They can use their abilities in other ways, and you can call them in at any time, but they can only move between connecting walls, so you may have to lead them through Denska as they become a little trapped at times. Sometimes the Genies might want you to play with them (such as a quick game of basketball or letting them do a bit of karaoke), and other times they like you to paint them a picture. If you keep them happy, they’ll fill up your Super Paint meter. There are lots of walls that are covered in darkness, and Super Paint is the only way you’ll be able to get rid of it so that the Genies can pass through. I adore the Genies. They’re cute, funny, and always help out when you need a hand, but the constant need to paint them a picture began to grate on me towards the end.
Although Concrete Genie is mostly all about painting, something happens in the story that turns it into a different game. To say here would ruin it for you, but PixelOpus transforms the relatively peaceful painting adventure game into a tense and emotive story that does a fantastic job of pulling at your heart strings. This new direction also provides you with new abilities that really do change the gameplay quite significantly.
With Ash being an outsider, the group of bullies appear heartless and cruel at first. But we all know there are reasons why people do what they do, and instead of making them outright villains, their stories become a focus. Concrete Genie shows their upbringing, and how you can’t always judge a book by its cover. It makes you sympathise for these kids and makes you think about how good parenting plays such a huge role in a child’s life. As the game reaches the final act, there are some moving moments that are brought to life by the already amazing score, and the wonderfully animated characters start to find a way deep into your heart.
There’s a Free Paint mode that lets you revisit areas from the game and cover the walls in all of your patterns and Genies, but beyond that there’s not much else. The VR Experience is another mode that feels tacked on, but getting to spend time with your Genie-friend Splosh as you visit a colourful outdoor setting in the woods and paint it with some lovely stuff at least changes the setting, and allows you to use the Move controllers to create something special. Once you’ve played through Splosh’s adventure, you get to Free Paint in VR, but again, it doesn’t really make you want to spend too much time there. If you’re a big fan of photo modes in games, Concrete Genie allows you to take lasting memories of all your creations, so that’s another plus point.
In the beginning, Concrete Genie is confusing and frustrating. There’s a lot of explaining to do, and plenty of exposition that is antithesis of what the freedom of creativity, but once it allows you to breath and you’re able to paint without being hindered, it becomes a wonderful game. The Genies are delightful, the story is a moving journey of self-exploration and unity, and the chance to take a step back and look over the town you’ve spent hours painting is a humbling experience. The painting does become more of a chore, especially when you’re having to keep your Genie’s happy, and the final act feels like it goes on for a little too long, but Concrete Genie is an inventive game filled with imagination and heart.
The action adventure elements are fun
Painting can become laborious
The final act goes on too long
VR experience is a little disappointing