*Warning* This review contains spoilers
From the opening moments of Concrete Genie, I knew this game was going to be something special. Developer PixelOpus has created a unique action adventure game that does a fantastic job of addressing the subject of bullying and its impact on people. Its rare when a video game and its narrative hit close to home, but much like 2018’s God of War impacted me as a father, this game also left me with the proverbial “feels” as someone who was bullied growing up. Main character Ash feels right at home as a first party creation, able to sit elbow to elbow among the likes of Kratos and Nathan Drake. Concrete Genie is such an incredible and demonstrative effort of a video game that it easily cements itself as one of the best games to come out in 2019.
Concrete Genie stars Ash, a young boy who loves to draw to escape the literal darkness around him in his hometown of Denska. Denska has been overrun by mysterious vines of darkness and a group of teenage bullies. With a band-aid stretched across his nose, you immediately know Ash has dealt with these bullies beforehand, seeking comfort in his artwork and imagination. The bullies unfortunately get a hold of Ash’s sketchbook and rip the pages from it, scattering them across the town and taunting him to find the pages as they look for him. The first page is of Ash’s favorite drawing, Luna, and it beckons him to a lighthouse. Luna comes to life and we’re given an enchanted paintbrush that can bring Ash’s other creature drawings, called Genies in the game, to life. With this paintbrush, we set off to turn on the lights in the town to fight off the vines of darkness and find the rest of the pages of Ash’s prized sketchbook.
The town is split into zones and each zone has a certain amount of lights to find as well as pages to collect. You use the brush to turn on the lights by painting different subjects as you explore and even find more Genies to paint. The controller becomes your literal brush by using the motion controls to simulate the act of painting, but I turned that off and switched it to the Right Thumb stick immediately. It’s a super simple procedure regardless of whichever way you decide to play it, I just hate motion controls in general. Part of the game-play is also in traversal, and you’ll spend a lot of time climbing and jumping across rooftops and ladders and construction areas in the fishing town of Denska. You’ll also be aided by different colored Genies across your adventure. Red Genies clear obstacles, yellow Genies power up various machines and open gates and blue genies use wind to move objects. Each Genie is also customizable, and you can give them various appendages and make them different sizes. It’s a great mechanic in the game to truly make each Genie feel like it’s yours.
You’ll also have to escape from the bullies so a little bit of stealth is thrown in, but you’ll mostly just outrun them and climb the rooftops and jump to your freedom. During certain segments, the bullies grab your paintbrush and you’re able to see into their mind, eventually witnessing their individual tragic backstories. It is in this moment that I wanted Concrete Genie to be something more, that I wished the game did something deeper and more meaningful with its narrative. Seeing the truth behind each of the bully’s reasons for being the way they are was downright gut punching at times. Divorce, absent parents and deep-rooted childhood trauma all reared their head during these pivotal moments in the game’s storytelling. Almost as if the game itself was a Genie, the game eventually delivered my wish in a fantastic way with a twist in not just the game but in the gameplay a little more than halfway through the adventure:
In one of the game’s best instances, the darkness manages to possess and corrupt your Genies and turns them into monsters. These monsters imprison the bullies and trap the bullies in their own nightmares and in true heroic fashion, despite being bullied and pestered by these mean kids, Ash sets out to save them. Luna then upgrades our abilities and the brush gains combat abilities. A further upgrade in the story gives us speed skates that can help us dodge and traverse the town faster. Going from a simple puzzle platformer into a full out action adventure is one of the most genius strokes Concrete Genie does and putting it behind a dark moment in the game’s narrative was the moment for me. I was already enjoying the game and its story about bullying and how Ash uses his art and the Genies as an escape, but when it spills into the world of Denska and dramatically changes how the entire game is played I applauded such a bold move. Other companies would have messed up a moment like this and PixelOpus deserves extreme praise for pulling this off and making it work.
From its art style to its music, Concrete Genie pops with vibrancy and color. The animation is reminiscent of something like Coraline and feels like a stop-motion animated film, with painting-styled art used for the flashback moments. Ash moves like a pseudo Nathan Drake as the game wears its Uncharted inspired traversal on its sleeve with pride, complete with paint highlighted ledges pointing out what you can jump and climb towards. Once you hit the action game moments, the way he skates around with the sparks of paint shooting out from his feet is amazing and feels just as good with controller in hand. The action combat might feel a little jarring to some, but I loved it. There’s just so much prevalent in the design decisions this game took, from the look to music that I just get giddy with appreciation for it every time I talk about it.
Concrete Genie is essentially a literal PIXAR film in video game form. From its light-hearted initial charm to its more serious and sentimental moments, Concrete Genie knocks it out of the park with its creativity, imagination and all-around warmth. Even with a short length (It took me around 4.5-5 hours total) it’s backed up by a budget price of $29.99 and is better than most full priced products out in gaming now. It doesn’t outstay its welcome and it’s so properly paced and crafted that I felt it was the perfect amount of time for a game of its ilk. It is a focused effort of game-play and narrative that prevents it from becoming too repetitive or too long, and that’s something a lot of studios could learn from. The journey is so uniquely heartwarming that I absolutely recommend anyone with a PS4 play this game.