Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Review [Video Game]: Concrete Genie by Pixelopus

Paint some murals, save some lives.

Concrete Genie
follows protagonist Ash as he tries to rid his old hometown of Denska of an encroaching darkness that threatens to pervade all. It is evident that the darkness is tied to the negativity that the old fishing village has had to endure over the last number of years, and despite its ugliness, Ash still waxes nostalgic over Denska. And then there are the bullies. In the opening moments of the game, Ash’s binder of drawings is scattered by a bunch of mischievous kids who torture him for no reason. Despite his parents’ warnings about the dangers of the town, Ash still tempts fate and finds himself in a pickle.

Concrete Genie is one of those unique “indie” games in that it isn’t indie at all. With the backing of Sony, Pixelopus released a smaller-scale title that feels like an upscale indie game. In combination with Media Molecule’s Dreams technology, Pixelopus set out to create something unique, and for the most part, they did.

The gameplay could best be described as a puzzle platformer, where you have to solve simple puzzles to proceed. There’s never much difficulty in the game and I never found myself stuck on any part for too long. It doesn't hurt that the platforming works well, so you don’t have to struggle with those controls. You can summon genies at specific parts of the map and it’s up to you to appease them with the help of your trusty paintbrush. The game gives you a preset number of designs (which you can find more of as you play through the game). You use these to create murals and bypass certain areas. These are the main forms of puzzles you will encounter, and while they don’t present much of a challenge, they are dazzling and unique. The colors and combinations can delight the senses, and it’s fun to watch your genies play with your paintings. Using your art to light up a district and bring color back to the town is an enjoyable treat. In tandem with the already striking claymation/stop motion visual feel, the game is visually entrancing.

For a game about being an artist, there isn’t much in the way of personal artistic expression due to the exclusive use of pre-selected designs. Don’t get me wrong, the options given are better than anything I could personally create, but it would be wonderful to see what other people could do with the tools, especially considering Pixelopus used Dreams tech to help create the game. It seems like a bit of a missed opportunity.

The “painting” is done with the Dualshock 4 or DualSense (depending on which platform you're on) controller’s motion sensor. While the sensor works well for what they want to do, it sometimes goes out of whack, which pulls me out of the game for a moment so I can recalibrate. Sometimes traditional controls work just fine, and in most cases, are even more precise. Despite this, there are no strict specifics that the player needs to adhere to when creating art (the closest things are the murals that you have to recreate), so the pressure to be extremely accurate doesn’t exist. This doesn't completely alleviate the occasional break in immersion due to the motion controls, but it does ameliorate it for the most part.

The story is a simple tale of bullying. It’s effective though not very unique. Not blaming oneself and forgiving others is a record that’s been played before. The use of the art to move the game forward is where the game’s charm comes in and brings in a different flavor. Though some of the world’s magic rules feel inconsistent or make no sense at times, it isn’t a game that’s meant to be thought on too much. It’s more a game of emotion than one of the mind, so suspending belief within its world was necessary at times to accept certain events.

An interesting change happens later in the game where we go from a puzzle platformer to a straight-up action game. The change is rather abrupt and takes much of what makes the game unique and turns it into a basic action game. It isn’t necessarily poor, but it doesn’t do anything so worthwhile that the shift is warranted. I think it would have been more impressive if the studio used the tools they had to solve the game’s problems without turning to a different genre. That said, getting the paint boots made getting around in the game significantly more enjoyable.

Though I didn’t run into any glitches on my playthrough of the main story, I did encounter a few in my cleanup run. I wanted to get all the collectibles and see Luna’s secret under the lighthouse, but a bug prevented me from doing so. Another bug prevented me from discovering all the genie moments in the game. So while there were no game breakers, there were a few completion ruining incidents, so keep it in mind if you don’t want to play through the game multiple times.

Being Pixelopus’s second game, Concrete Genie showed a lot of promise for future titles. Unfortunately, Sony closed the studio in the summer of 2023, ceasing any thoughts of possible projects from the studio. Despite some of my misgivings with the game, it does what it sets out to do and more; it shows that big publishers should take more small-time risks because they can pay off with quality content. Concrete Genie may only take a handful of hours to complete, but it’s flashy and memorable and shows that we don’t need every game to have a budget of one hundred million dollars to be enjoyable. Painting dazzling landscapes across Deska is an enjoyable experience. Concrete Genie isn’t perfect, but I found it to be endearing and worth a few hours of my time.


The Math

Objective Assessment: 7/10

Bonus: +1 for unique gameplay. +1 for visual splendor.

Penalties: -1 for end-game gameplay shift. -1 for genie glitches and bugs.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.