Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed)

One of the easiest ways to get your game recognized as indie with a capital “I” is to make some vague motion toward being artistic... with a capital “A.” We’ve seen any number of indie games where “art” is the main gameplay mechanic, from the lobbed paint globs of The Unfinished Swan to the beautiful landscapes of Eastshade.

Then we have Sony’s recently released Concrete Genie a game that wants so badly the wear the artistic indie cap, even though it’s questionably not indie (being a PlayStation exclusive heavily pushed by Sony), and questionably not very artistic. It’s a game that looks the part of a breakout indie title, but feels like something very different.

Works of art

In Concrete Genie you take control of Ash, a young artist growing up in the desolate town of Denska. When a group of bullies tear up Ash’s sketchbook, Ash suddenly finds that one of his sketched creations has come to life. It leads him to a giant magic paintbrush that lets him plaster his artistic creations all around the city, fighting back the darkness that has overcome it and regaining the ripped pages of his sketchbook along the way.

Aside from some light platforming, painting is the main mechanic of Concrete Genie. By default you paint with the DualShock 4’s motion controls, tilting it this way and that to control your brush, but I’d recommend turning motion controls off and using right stick controls instead. The tilt controls are just too janky to have any sense of control.

You aren’t really painting individual brush strokes. Rather, you are painting patterns. Choose the grass pattern, make a brush stroke, and watch swaying grass pop up in its wake. Choose the fire brush and make a stroke upward to create a crackling campfire. It’s clear that developer Pixelopus knew that you would have limited control no matter what you did, and so it made sure that anything you “painted” looked good.

Unfortunately, this creates some thematic issues. While it feels good to marvel at your paintings early on, especially since you can draw on literally any surface of the game, your fourth or fifth painting starts to feel a little hollow. Your brush set is limited, even if you get special DLC, and you eventually become aware that it’s not really you painting these masterpieces. It’s an algorithm specifically designed to make your paintings look good. You are only giving it the slightest suggestions and it is doing the rest of the world.

This hollow feeling only compounds when you realize that you don’t actually have to paint anything in particular. You aren’t painting bombs to break walls or platforms that you can jump on. You are just painting. Paint enough and lightbulbs light up. Light enough lightbulbs and you get to move forward. At times the game will ask you to use particular brushes but you don’t have to use them in any particular location or with any feeling of artistic cohesion. You can just dab a splotch of paint on the wall and be done with it.

The only other thing you can do is create the eponymous concrete genies but this too is largely controlled by algorithm. One stroke makes a body, a couple more strokes make limbs or horns, and that’s about it. Once again it’s really interesting to see your creations come to life for the first few times, but eventually these also start to feel hollow because they aren’t used for much.

Mostly they are used to solve “puzzles” but I use the term very lightly here. All they really do is removed colored obstacles. Red genies remove red barriers, yellow genies turn on yellow switches, and so on. They are more roadblock than puzzle, brief time wasters that slow your progress with no huge EUREKA moment.

There are a few other gameplay elements mixed in to this art fest. At times Ash will have to sneak around the bullies in short stealth sections. Unfortunately, there aren’t any stakes in these sections. There’s no failure state and the worst the bullies can do is throw you in a trash can which does nothing at all except make you attempt the section again.

Time to fight

Late in the game you suddenly have to engage in combat, but it feels like an afterthought. The controls are clunky and while you have paint themed abilities, you aren’t really “painting” to harm enemies like you might in games such as Okami. You are just sort of button mashing. Not to mention this combat is incredibly short lived. Before you know it you are back to puzzle platforming, as if the combat was just a small detour.

It’s clear that Concrete Genie is supposed to be one of those chill aesthetic games where creativity is supposed to be its own reward. Unfortunately, I could never find myself getting into it. It’s clear from the game’s social page that other gamers are spending hours in photo mode, chronicling the landscape they painted and trying to get the perfect shot. It’s even more clear when you are dumped into the post-game, where the only thing you can do is paint more, filling up the whole city with your creations. I, however, was here for the puzzles and the Tim Burton-esque story, and frankly Concrete Genie didn’t give me enough of either.

I can tell that Concrete Genie was an ambitious project. From a coding standpoint, it’s an amazing feat. The fact that you can paint anything and it will stay there, the whole game, is very impressive. That is enough to instill a bit of wonder into the player, as your dark surroundings suddenly blossom into a colorful environment as a result of your very creativity.

But in the end, that just makes Concrete Genie an interesting painting tool, not an interesting game. That’s probably enough for some people, the type of people who can sink hours into Minecraft creative mode, for example. However, it just wasn’t the game for me. If you want to see a dark world come to life through your own paint strokes then you’ll love Concrete Genie, but if you are looking for a game that has interesting puzzles to solve, engaging combat, or even tricky platforming, I’m afraid that that Concrete Genie is more of a quick sketch than a work of art.