Concrete Genie seems like one of those unassuming games that don’t command a lot of attention, what with its boy hero and lack of combat. But the PlayStation 4 exclusive’s humble appearance is soon belied by the world it opens up into: a charming, fancy-free world of color that explodes wherever you want it to. Armed only with a paintbrush, Concrete Genie a calming, creative adventure — a nonviolent, beautiful game that we could always use more of.
Sony first announced developer Pixelopus’ Concrete Genie during the annual Paris Games Week in fall 2017, when it struck us as a pure-hearted fantasy among much harsher projects. It has the visuals of a stop-motion film produced by Leica Studios, and it seems like a world for and built by preteens, not gun-toting adults.
Concrete Genie stars a silent boy named Ash who uses a magic paintbrush to clean up his darkened neighborhood. There’s purple sludge on the walls; the sky is always blue-gray. String lights line the city with what seem like dead bulbs, and the only other people Ash runs into are other boys who want to steal his brush and punch him into the ground.
What Ash sets out to do is revitalize his city with the simplicity of artwork. Using the DualShock 4’s motion controls and a combination of buttons, you can paint on most walls. Ash’s palette is limited to a selection of graffiti, like trees or butterflies. (There’s also fire that sets everything you painted ablaze, which is fun for artists with dark streaks.) The things he throws onto the wall come to life on contact, and it becomes clear that they have the power to clean up all the grime and gray.
Painting actually feels good, if limited at times. You can scroll through Ash’s brushes to create vivid pictures that follow whatever design theme you want. The DualShock’s gyroscope directs where your brush goes, which feels fanciful in a way that contributes to the optimistic mood of the game, and the shoulder buttons are used to actually apply the paint. You can decorate however you want, but only with the brush elements given to you. They’re diverse enough to be able to create stand-alone pictures each time, as if you’re applying a personal stamp.
All of that wall-decorating makes Concrete Genie seem something like Jet Set Radio, which also incorporated graffiti to tag a stylized world. A major component that helps differentiate from other art- and graffiti-based games is that Ash can run into patches of art on the ground that compel him to take to the wall and create a monster as customizable as the rest of his art. Called genies, they can be friendly, Where the Wild Things Are-esque creatures; or they can be huge monsters with horns all over their bodies. (That’s what I went with during my hands-on gameplay, scaring everyone around me.)
These genies give Ash a boost in bringing light back to the neighborhood, and they help him clear puzzles to go deeper into its various zones. This is when the game starts feeling more like The Last Guardian, or anything else where a character must guide someone they can’t communicate with beyond gesturing. The genies slink across walls on their own, but Ash can command them to burn down coverings that he can then scale across, as well as use them for super-painting that brightens the surroundings. In return, they’ll beg him to draw them a sun that makes them cheer.
Concrete Genie did give us some pause when it comes to the actual progression. Running through the neighborhood to paint the town haphazardly — and ascending buildings to duck onto rooftops when bullies appear — makes the game feel like a small, open-world adventure. That’s not what it is; there are puzzles, and the genies are used and expanded upon to help solve them. These seem optional, especially if you’d rather just paint every square inch possible.
Choosing to do your own thing seems only possible for so long, however. Ash has the ability to paint and do more as he completes tasks. If you’d prefer to just freestyle with your paintbrush for hours, good luck getting any farther into the city. You may find yourself running out of wall space sooner than later.
Even so, we smiled through designing those genie-monsters, which bear a different aesthetic from the game at large. But Concrete Genie meshes throughout, with its storybook world that feels lived in. We’re just the people dropping by to offer some extra help in fixing up the neighborhood.