This game must have been a tricky proposition to pitch to Sony. We want to make a game that explores the scarring psychological events that drive bullies, the potential positive effects of graffiti in areas of urban decay, and magical Genies. Those three key themes hardly seem to fit together naturally, but thankfully, somehow PixelOpus manage to bring all of these different elements together to form a beautiful – albeit brief – whole in only their second-ever game, Concrete Genie.
We find ourselves in the dilapidated port town of Denska; once a thriving and happy tourist destination, that is until an oil tanker spill signaled a chain of events and negative emotion that saw most of the population move away, and what little remained of the town fell into a state of doom and disrepair. Taking on the role of local teen Ash, we see both his regretful memories of how nice his beloved Denska used to be, and also his current dilemma of being constantly bullied by the only other kids brave – or stupid – enough to still visit the area. Regularly escaping these demons by diving into his imagination via his sketchbook, everything changes when the bullies get hold of him, scatter the pages of his art all over the town and trap him in a one-way gondola trip to the local haunted lighthouse.
It is in this seemingly horrible dead-end that Ash finds the light that could save all of Denska. Finding a spirit who seems powered by the paintings Ash has been producing, our protagonist is endowed with a magical paintbrush that he can use to creating living masterpieces across the city – with the ultimate aim of eliminating the dark thoughts and dread that has engulfed Denska. He won’t be alone in his task to brighten things up with his paintings though, as his paintbrush can also bring to life a series of different elemental Genies, who not only help keep his paintbrush powered up with super paint, but also use their unique abilities to aid Ash overcome many obstacles.
The majority of the game involves using your DualShock controller to aim paintbrush strokes, using any available walls or buildings as your canvas. Lightbulbs throughout the town must be lit up by the power of your paint in order to banish areas of darkness that halt your progress. As you traverse each location through Denska, you collect the missing sketchbook pages in order to fill up your arsenal of available patterns and objects to paint on walls. There are few designs to start off with, but this helps avoid one feeling overwhelmed as they learn the basics. There is a more simplified cursor-based control method on offer, but it feels far more direct and creative to simply swish around your control pad as if it were a real brush. Walking through the various side streets to view your various paintings is quite a unique experience – few other games let you personalize your in-game world to this extent.
Aiming the dualshock pad definitely feels a bit tricky at first – being such a unique control scheme it doesn’t make much sense until you try it yourself – but it is pretty intuitive and soon becomes second nature. You quickly find yourself jumping from rooftop to rooftop, covering the walls with paint in order to brighten up the city. And jump between rooftops you must, as those pesky bullies are still gunning for you. If you venture far on foot they quickly pick-up your scent and take chase, so making use of rooftops, zip-lines and environmental objects as hiding places is constantly necessary. Thankfully many of these hard-to-reach places yield further collectables and sketchbook pages, so it never feels too much of a frustration to be avoiding the bullies. Annoyingly they will also graffiti over your own paintings – which you quickly become protective of, being your own personal creations.
What makes Concrete Genie more emotionally interesting and engaging is the fact that through your various encounters with the bullies as the game goes on, you begin to piece together the tragic events and emotional scars that each one still carries, which have led each of them to become the angry teenagers they are now. This gives some insight into why they keep lashing out at Ash, and also provides hints towards why Denska is such a breeding ground for dark thoughts. Obviously this is never used as an easy excuse for actions of the antagonists, but it helps flesh out the idea that these kids aren’t simply evil, but that they too have also been damaged by events in their past, just like the town.
On the other end of the spectrum to the bullies are the titular Genies. These can be summoned by Ash by painting them at certain points in the town. Each one is hand-painted and decorated by the player before they are brought to life, which adds a further level of customization to the game. You can add ears, tails and horns – or all of the above – to your Genies, who can be Fire, Electrical or Wind elementals. By keeping them happy and painting the designs that they ask you to, the Genies will follow you when you call them and can burn tarps that block your way, blow pesky crates from your path or power up long-broken dock machinery – just to name a few of their uses. Some seem to require a lot more appeasing that others before they want to help you, but it is still just a matter of painting a scene that makes them happy.
And so the game progresses this way for much of its length until we approach the finale. Without giving away too much, at that time the Darkness across the city suddenly takes a turn for the worse and a series of corrupted Genies become the first real in-game enemies. Ash must learn a few new skills such as a very Tony-Hawk-like paint skating skill, that lets you get around town much faster, and paintbrush attacks where you harness the three elemental powers to use against the corruptions. Sadly these “boss battles” are pretty repetitive and lose much of the charm of using the paintbrush that has been established through the rest of the game, reducing the experience to a pretty basic shooter. There are no “game over” states to worry about, but these fights feel out of place compared to everything else in-game.
These battles do only form a thankfully short portion of Concrete Genie, but when the whole game from start to finish will probably only take you five hours or so to complete, it is a disappointing concluding chapter. For such a creative game, having to battle the corrupted Genies like this feels very uninspired. After completing the main story, you are free to continue painting in the city as you please, as well as collecting any still-outstanding sketchbook pages, but there is little motivation or reward to do so. There are also two optional PSVR gameplay modes, but neither offers little more than a short diversion and can be easily skipped.
It should be said that the art style of concrete Genie is fantastic. The neon Genies are probably what has captured the imagination of many gamers in trailers and the like – and rightfully so, as they are lovely – but it is the stylised character models and stop-motion style animation that I really appreciated. It is very simple, but feels unlike any other game animation I can think of, recreating the feeling of a Tim Burton or Wes Anderson animation, for instance. The musical score also brilliantly helps heighten the various emotions throughout the game, ranging from gloom and despair to hope and triumph – supported by a range of relaxing, light tunes that really make choosing to spend a little extra time in painting your masterpieces even more of a joy.
All in all, Concrete Genie tells a great, self-contained short story; one that may well have little replayability, but that tells a powerful coming-of-age story without letting itself get bogged down by many of the sort of trappings modern games often do. It may consist of a mostly open gameplay world, but the story has enough forward momentum that you are always feel you are barreling towards the next goal and have clear objectives to complete. You always want to find out what will happen to Ash next, and just how you can help to save Denska.