A Beautiful, Poignant Tale
I was badly bullied at school for five years. One day I had a hardback textbook thrown at my face, while another time that same group sliced my ear open with wire cutters. I was called names, slapped, punched and ultimately all of this drove me to the point of contemplating suicide as a way out from the abuse. My only refuge came from drawing and writing stories in my room during the weekend which kept my sanity for the better part of secondary school. Fast forward five years and I ironically ended up friends with those same boys who used to bully me. At least for a little while.
Concrete Genie then is a game that resonates deeply with me. It’s a beautiful, thematically relevant action-adventure game that not only taps into this idea of overcoming bullying, it presents this concept in an artistic, fun and inventive way, valuing quality over quantity. In an age where huge open world games and 40+ hour play-times appear to be the norm for video games, Concrete Genie is a tight-knit, 5 hour Indie gem and one of the best games of 2019. From the clever use of the motion controller to the gorgeous neon-lit visuals, this game is a joy to play from start to finish and never once outstays its welcome.
At the core of this one is the quaint seaside town of Denska where our tale plays out. You play the role of quiet painter Ash, who finds himself mercilessly bullied by a group of delinquents who steal your artwork, rip out the pages and scatter them across the town. After throwing you into a cable car destined for the nearby lighthouse, what follows is a journey of redemption and forgiveness as you set out on a quest to recover the lost pages of your sketchbook and bring life back into the polluted town.
Very early on, you’re introduced to the core gameplay mechanics, courtesy of a strange Genie called Luna. Along the way, these mischievous, wall-dwelling creatures help you fight back against the darkness spread across Denska. After discovering each one, you fully customize their appearance and in return, they help you clear environmental obstacles, courtesy of special abilities ranging from electrical charges and blasts of wind. Keeping these genies happy allows you to supercharge your brush which helps push back the darkness too. With these mechanics explained very early on, as you leave the lighthouse the game combines light platforming and puzzling elements with a lot of imaginative painting as you start to bring colour back into this lifeless world.
The bulk of the game is split into three digestible, open world areas. In each, you paint the walls to turn on lightbulbs in that corresponding area, whilst collecting pages for your sketchbook along the way to add more variety to your paintings or to customize each genie. While you can easily just paint the same drawing throughout the game, there’s a distinct satisfaction that comes from creating your own masterpiece, and the animated manner each of these drawings comes to life when you’re finished certainly adds an extra incentive to do this.
Once you’ve completed each open-world segment, the game injects some action into the final hour of the game, as you use your paintbrush as a weapon to fight off the darkness in a final showdown to save the town. This is arguably the weakest section of the game though, with simplistic boss fights utilizing the same attack patterns and most devolving to button mashing for the duration of these events. Personally I didn’t care for this section but it’s still a welcome change of pace as everything builds up for the finale.
Thematically, there’s a really interesting concept at work here around violence not being the answer to all your problems. The way Concrete Genie takes its time to show just why the bullies are acting the way they are is something that adds so much more depth to the title and reinforces ideas around friendship and being stronger together. It’s such a poignant and reflective message, one that absolutely tugs at the heartstrings during the game’s final scenes.
With a great soundtrack and some unique animation that borders on stop-motion during cut-scenes, Concrete Genie gets a lot right but its not flawless. The camera and motion controls won’t be for everyone and at times, I did find myself wrestling with the camera during particularly claustrophobic sections indoors, especially during the game’s third act as things descend to a more confined area. While I love the motion controls, given I tend to play most games lying on the sofa with the controller hanging vertically, it did take some adjusting to confidently use these motion controls correctly. Thankfully, a handy push of the triangle levels things out if you do find your cursor going wayward and this last point is more of a personal gripe than a hindrance to the game itself.
Concrete Genie is quite simply a classic example of quality over quantity and aside from a few gripes with the final hour of the game, this is easily one of the best games of 2019. Not bad for a title that clocks in at around 5 hours. It’s a great showcase for how games can break free from conventional norms and illustrate an idea in a polished and clever manner. This is a game that personally resonated with me right the way through to the final scenes and one that’s absolutely worth its weight in gold. If you’re on the fence about this one, do yourself a favour and take the plunge. You’ll be thankful you did.
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Verdict - 8.5/10