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If you ever felt the urge to take a magic paint brush and beautify the walls of a dilapidated city, then you’ll understand the basic gameplay of Concrete Genie. This game lets you create, or “paint,” works of art, as if you were creating masterpieces with the simple flick of a motion controller.
You play as Ash, a young boy who longs to bring back the glory days and colors of the abandoned fishing village of Denska. It feels like Thatgamecompany’s Flower from the PlayStation 3, but it has more characters, personality, and a deeper story.
The game from Sony’s small Pixelopus studio in San Mateo, California, debuted this week for $30 as an exclusive for the PlayStation 4.
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Concrete Journey is both a tale about a boy saving a town and an inner psychological journey, played out on the canvas of a video game. Ash loves to sketch the way the town used to be, before an environmental disaster polluted it. And he dreams of bringing fanciful creatures known as genies to life.
But with the dreams also comes nightmares. The neighborhood bullies menace Ash and try to destroy his artwork, ripping the pages from his sketchbook and scattering them around town.
The bullies’ own internal demons cause them to lash out at Ash and the beautiful images he creates. That forces Ash into his own inner turmoil, as he has to recover his sketch pages, escape from or confront the bullies, and then fight back.
But Ash’s imagination helps him against the bullies, as the genies he creates come to life and urge him to restore the beauty of the town. They give him magical abilities to fight the bullies and the nightmare creatures that they spawn.
What you’ll like
A story of inner turmoil with metaphors
Ash is a loner artist who finds solace in creating beautiful, imaginary friends that are the game’s genies. They’re all that he has, as his once beautiful town is abandoned by everybody except a handful of bullies who make Ash’s life miserable.
As Ash struggles to bring each part of the town back, he realizes that not everybody appreciates beauty. For whatever reason, some people may be angry. They may be in a part of their life when they’re lashing back against beautiful things. And for the bullies in particular, it may be because their home lives are broken. Rather than treat those bullies as enemies, Ash responds with compassion.
In the latter part of the game, Ash has to fight against dark creatures who are manifestations of the inner demons of the bullies. Those creatures have grabbed control of the bullies, wrapping them in a kind of black good. Ash has to free them by fighting the nightmarish creatures. But because he knows where they come from, he tries to overcome those demons, befriend the creatures, and win them over with kindness. I liked that message. Rather than fighting violence with more violence, it was about opposing them only to the point where you can win them to your side.
Gameplay that feels like painting
Although the controls can be hard to deal with, I liked the intention behind them. The game teaches you to hold the PlayStation motion controller in your hand and move it about to spray images on the wall. You take the paintbrush and dip it into a template, like a field of green grass, and spray that grass on the wall.
You don’t get to really create your own art. You choose images from templates, and then you get to splash those images on the walls. But your creativity comes in with how you superimpose those images on each other and create a feast of colors on every wall.
It takes only seconds to paint a wall, but it makes you feel like you are an artist, creating something of beauty on a drab, graffiti-covered wall. If you connect all the parts of a building and light up its lights, then the genies are free to roam around the walls and spread their delight. As you light up more areas in the city, you unlock more template images to paint onto the walls.
Beautiful creatures in the walls
One of the neat technical tricks that Pixelopus pulled off was embedding the genies into the walls. These genies are flat, 2D characters who live in the surfaces of the walls. But they come to live and move around, as if the wall is a frame in a cartoon.
They can bend around the corners and move to other walls and follow you around the town. That is an amazing effect, and one that the developers struggled to get right. The creatures are cute and fuzzy, and they have their own unique characteristics. Ash learns to foster them, exploit their powers, and protect them. The art of the painted town reminded me of Pixar’s Coco with its dazzling lights and colors.
The game has two PlayStation VR modes, dubbed VR Experience and VR Free Paint. You can help a genie discover a mysterious power through painting and see the art come to life in VR. In Free Paint, you can use PlayStation Move motion controllers to create beautiful landscapes.
A story with a twist
The game appears to be a simple one of Ash painting the town back to life. But at a certain point in the narrative, he meets real resistance from the bullies. They break his paintbrush and turn much of the town into an ugly black landscape. And then the creatures of their nightmares come to life.
At this point, Concrete Genie becomes a different game. You enter a kind of combat, riding a skateboard into battle and blasting the monsters with electricity, wind, or bursts of power. It becomes akin to a third-person shooter. I enjoyed this shift in gameplay.
A tough boss battle
At the end of the game, you have to use all of your combat skills. It transitions from an easy and forgiving game to a tough battle where you have to avoid being attacked by a big flying monster and fire off your own attacks before the monster strikes. Again, I liked this battle, but it felt so different from the early game. It had kind of a tonal dissonance to it, but the core battle was fun.
What you won’t like
The controls aren’t always intuitive
Using the PlayStation controller’s motion sensor seems like a natural way to “paint” on digital walls. But the perspective changes that come with motion in a 3D environment make the controls kind of wonky. It’s hard to simply paint an entire wall because you have to reposition the controller or get it aligned again before you can complete the painting.
On top of that, when the action starts in the latter part of the game, you never know exactly where you’re aiming when you fire off a paint blast at the dark creatures. This could have been solved by a target reticle, but the game doesn’t have that. So you have to guess at where you are aiming by firing. The result is that you’ll often fire in the wrong direction at a critical moment.
I played the game for a handful of hours. Denska isn’t all that big. You can try to collect a lot of items and repaint some images that you find in your wanderings. But you don’t have all that much to do in the game before it becomes repetitive. Thankfully, the developers knew when to stop when it did become repetitive. But it felt like the game could have gone on longer.
The game also didn’t have many save slots. I wanted to replay the finished boss battle. But I didn’t save the game at the right moment, so when the game was over, the only to get back to that battle was to play it all over again.
You learn along the way that each one of the bullies has a bad home environment. The parents have separated. A father is violent. Lots of shouting. You learn these things through flashbacks that happen when both Ash and one of the bullies grabs the magic paintbrush at the same time. Each bully doesn’t have much of a backstory. You simply see their past lives in the form of a still image, like an angry parent. You have to guess at the rest, but you assume that all the bullies have the same tough background. The game asks you to show these bullies compassion, but they are two dimensional.
I think the game skews pretty young because it carries such a heartwarming message. On the other hand, the smallest kids might get spooked by the nightmares that appear as creatures later in the game. (That’s why it is rated E10+, for everyone 10 and older.) But it seems like a good game to play with your children because of the message of kindness and how to deal with bullies.
I liked the intentions of the game. But while it did have a big twist, I felt like it was more of a short story than a long narrative. Sony did the right thing in pricing the game at $30, but I also felt like the game could have been fleshed out more as a three-dimensional story, rather than a flat story on a 2D wall.
Concrete Genie is out now for the PlayStation 4. Sony provided GamesBeat with a digital code for the purposes of this review.
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