It’s very rare when I’m only an hour or so into a game and I’m ready to declare it a major contender for Game of the Year, but that’s exactly how I felt playing Concrete Genie, a stunningly beautiful and inspirational exercise in originality that would give birth to a new genre if I thought this experience could ever be replicated. Simply put, Concrete Genie defies everything we know about gaming and game design, effectively turning the player into a member of the studio’s art department while infusing the artistic creation parts with just enough traditional adventure and exploration to keep things familiar.
The game opens with a fairly long cutscene where we meet Ash, a young artist who spends his days drawing in his sketchbook while avoiding the local gang of bullies who seem to have free fun over the abandoned city of Denska. This once thriving fishing village has become environmentally and emotionally polluted by an oil spill that has brought a supernatural darkness to the town. Naturally, the bullies catch up to Ash and swipe his sketchbook scattering the pages to the wind and all corners and rooftops of Denska – something to collect in your upcoming adventures. The encounter ends with the bullies sending Ash to the nearby island lighthouse, but that is where the magic and the adventure begin.
Ash discovers a magical energy inside the lighthouse that brings one of his favorite drawings to life. Luna repairs his sketchbook, gives Ash a magic paintbrush, and introduces him to Splotch, the first of several magical creatures that will find a home in Ash’s backpack. Using the power of paint, Ash is able to create these wonderful living drawings using a combination of symbolized drawing components, but even better Ash is able to create these amazing Genies using various body parts (think Mr. Potato Head) that will spring to life and follow him around the city. Genies have elemental abilities like fire, wind, and electricity and you get to decide which Genies are needed when it comes to solving various environmental puzzles as you set out to restore Denska to its former glory.
Concrete Genie has a very open-ended gameplay loop that allows a lot of freedom in exploration and artistic expression. The primary objective in each part of the city is to light up all the strings of lights hanging on the walls by creating your own living graffiti on the walls beneath them. Another important element is finding those pages from your book, which adds to your growing palette of artistic components and Genie body parts. And as expected, there is a bit of backtracking involved in gathering up all the collectibles.
Scattered about the city are spots where you can create a Genie, and the more parts/pages you have found the more creative you can be. The first step is to create the body which can be vertical or in some cases horizontal. You then get to add ears, antennae, wings, a tail, etc. Be as crazy and original as you want before bringing your creation to life. At this point the game will attach arms and legs and your Genie springs to life and interacts with you in ways you wouldn’t think possible. You might even get to play with your Genie, play some basketball, watch TV, or sing some Karaoke. There is so much emotion conveyed in just the body language, facial expressions, and the limited guttural sounds, and when you aren’t sure exactly what they want an informative thought bubble will pop-up showing you exactly what they want you to draw. Sometimes, instead of showing exactly what symbols to use the wall might show the end result and you’ll need to figure out the symbols required to get that drawing.
Genies are confined to the walls, but they are able to follow you throughout the city provided there is a connected surface upon which they can travel. You simply hit L1 to summon the Genies and as many that can will eventually show up. There is one set of buildings just outside the Fish Market that is its own island and the Genie you create there can never leave, and later in the sewers you’ll get to a point where once the Genies have moved to the top level you can never get them to return to the bottom. Summoning Genies is useful for solving various puzzles as well as completing these Sketchbook challenges indicated by chalk drawings on the wall. Summoning Genies to these drawings will trigger a mini-game of drawing what they request to complete a scene.
Genies love your artwork and have very specific demands for one or more components to create the perfect drawing. These present themselves as symbols above their heads that you can then match to the symbols in your sketchbook, so if a Genie wants an apple tree on a grassy landscape with some dandelions and tulips for accents you find those symbols and paint those designs. The best part is you have total creative license on where and how to composite these elements, and you can even add in your own flourishes with non-requested content – maybe a sun or a rainbow over that apple tree. When you create these living murals for the Genies they will reward you with Super Paint that will charge your paintbrush and allow you to paint over special dark patches of the environment infected from the toxic sludge taking over the city.
And that is the basic loop of the game; creating Genies, keeping them happy, having them follow you around town as you clear the Darkness and light up all the lights. There are some fun elemental puzzles where you’ll need the electric Genie to power on switches or the air Genie to blow something around or the fire Genie to burn away a canvass. There are also several billboards scattered about that you get to trace over with matching symbols and paint to bring them back to animated life. The default painting controls make great use of the SIXAXIS motion controls of the DualShock4, allowing you this freeform brushstroke input with an easy re-center option if the cursor gets too wild. You can also switch over to painting with the right stick but this is much less immersive. For the most part Concrete Genie is simply a joy to play, full of exploration, discovery, and enchanting creation and interaction with your creations; at least until you hit Chapter 5.
During the first four chapters you are merely restoring the city in a relatively conflict-free environment; a few scripted bully encounters notwithstanding, but just about the time you have saved the city the Darkness suddenly surges, taking over all the hours of work you have accomplished up to then and even worse, turning your own Genies against you as evil creatures that can now move from a simple painting on the wall to a formidable enemy in the 3D world. During these final chapters the game introduces a new combat element that slowly expands to cover elemental attacks, paint skating, and this hot and cold domination mini-game to tame and turn these evil monsters back into your friendly Genies. At first this seemed like an abrupt change in design and tonal shift for the game, and a few of the final battles seemed frustrating, awkward, and more like superficial attempts to prolong the game, but it all worked out in the end for me and Ash.
There is a great underlying story taking place beyond the mere corruption of Denska. There is a strong message of bullying, forgiveness, and redemption that unfolds with Ash and his antagonists; a message perfectly geared for the E10 audience yet not lost on this 50-something old gamer. I was impressed with the level of backstory given to the bullies; perhaps even more than our hero, Ash. A lot of the storytelling is enhanced with these fantastic cutscene visuals that totally took me back to those classic Rankin/Bass Christmas specials (Rudolph, etc.) where the eyes and mouth were hand-animated on physical puppets. There is so much subtle animation going on with both humans and Genies it boggles the mind.
The entire game is a visual masterpiece, combining this complex and tightly packed world of buildings that offer plenty to explore above on the rooftops as well as below in the sewers. Perhaps most impressive is how dark and dingy the city starts out and how lively and colorful it all ends up and the knowledge that you have created nearly all of the artwork now visible in the game. About halfway through the game there is a part where you are standing high on the roof of a large building and can overlook most of the city and see all of the artwork you have created up to that point. It was like looking down on Time Square or the Vegas Strip.
It blew my mind to think about what was going on behind the scenes for this game to keep track of every painting and every Genie I had drawn up to that point. You are essentially creating new texture map overlays for any building in the game and they can be as simple or complex and multi-layered as you want, and the game remembers them all. Ash is animated beautifully as he runs and climbs and zip-lines across the city exploring and interacting. There are these amazing camera sweeps that fly across the city when you light all the lights showing the Darkness receding and more flyovers when entering a new zone. It’s also worth mentioning the gorgeous 2D story art for both the opening movie and the various flashback sequences for each of the bullies, and make sure to stick around for all the great story panels in the closing credits.
Concrete Genie manipulates your emotions not just with its charming visuals but also with one of the most stirring scores of recent memory, and when it all comes together I felt like I just got hit with a truckload of PIXAR movies. The voice acting is limited in quantity while shining with quality for Ash, the bullies, and even the vocalizations of Luna and the Genies. There is great use of 3D positional audio that will totally immerse you in the game.
Concrete Genie can be finished in 5-8 hours but you’ll probably want to add a few more hours onto that for total completion in case you missed any pages or billboards in your initial pass. There is a post-credit open-world free roam mode for this very purpose, and it allows you to explore Denska in a rather cheery sunlit environment and revisit your Genie entourage scattered about the walls of the town. This is also a good time to complete any of the dozens of trophies remaining in the game, but the biggest and best post-game reward is playing Concrete Genie in VR.
Actually, you don’t have to wait until the game is over to play in VR, but there might be some creative content spoilers if you don’t. The VR component is purely an add-on and has nothing to do with the main story. In this self-contained chapter you’ll meet up with Splotch who will take you into a 3D VR landscape and challenge you to draw various content and combinations. Complete all his requests and you will unlock a Free Paint mode that will take you to key locations around Denska where you are free to create more living murals and populate them with original Genie designs. It’s worth noting that your sketchbook palette will be limited to only the designs you have unlocked during the main game – another reason to save the VR mode until after completing the story. There are no rules or objectives; just unbridled freedom of creation in the immersive world of VR, and it is striking just how cool this really is in VR with your paintbrush in one hand and your sketchbook in the other using the PS Move controllers. What a fantastic bonus for PSVR owners!
I’ve been known to toss the word “magical” around in a few of my reviews, but Concrete Genie is the epitome of the word; a game so fantastically creative and original it continues to blow my mind just thinking about it. And while the discovery and puzzle elements of the game are linear I know that when I do go back and play it again (and I will play this again) that no two murals or Genies will be the same as the first time I played. I’m still nominating Concrete Genie for Best PS4 Game of 2019 even though the memories of playing this timeless classic will last a lifetime.