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Concrete Genie

Platform(s): PlayStation 4
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Pixelopus
Release Date: Oct. 8, 2019 (US), Oct. 9, 2019 (EU)


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PS4 Review - 'Concrete Genie'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Oct. 8, 2019 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Concrete Genie is an action adventure game about a boy called Ash who discovers he can bring his paintings to life.

Buy Concrete Genie

It can sometimes be difficult to discuss a game whose biggest flaw goes hand-in-hand with its biggest spoiler. Concrete Genie is one of those games. It's charming and distinctive, but the twist is going to dominate all discussions about the game. Be warned that there be spoilers ahead because you can't discuss one without the other.

Concrete Genie follows the story of Ash, who comes from the small, fictional town of Denska, which is covered in a tangible darkness. Ash loves the town, but the only other people who still hang out there are a group of bullies. When one of their pranks goes too far, Ash finds himself in a mysterious lighthouse where a genie gifts him with a magic paintbrush. Using the paintbrush, Ash sets out to rescue his town and confront the bullies.

Concrete Genie's story is simple and enjoyable. It's basically divided into two halves that have very different tones and loosely fit together. The bullies are lightly characterized, which feels weak when the game tries to make you care about them. It's difficult to empathize when the game tries to pull the "bullies are bad because of their own trauma" card after suffering near-constant abuse and beatings at their hands. The title does its job well enough, but the ending feels like players have wandered into another game.

The easiest way to describe the Concrete Genie gameplay is Infamous for kids. The parkour, movement and general feel were reminiscent of the PS4 launch title, Infamous: Second Son. Even the emphasis on painting brings to mind the graffiti mechanic from that game, although Concrete Genie's is more involved. This isn't a criticism of the game by any means, but in many ways, it's a standard action/platformer with comfortable mechanics. What really defines it are the genies.

Ash has the ability to create genies, which he can use to manipulate the environment. Fire genies can burn things, electric genies can power things, and wind genies can blow things around. You can craft them at summoning locations throughout the world, and sketchbook parts unlock additional design options that change the visuals for your genie — but not much else.

The genies are adorable, brightly colored, and charming monsters, and there are a lot of fun interactions with them. You can play games with them, give them high fives, and they'll scoot around while you're exploring and do cute (or occasionally mischievous) things. They're effectively interchangeable, but the fact that I crafted the genies myself make them memorable.

In addition to genies, Ash can draw various environments on the walls, including flowers, moons, mushrooms and stars. Drawing them on walls near unlit lightbulbs allows you to restore those bulbs to brightness and drive away the darkness. You'll occasionally need to satisfy the request of one of your genies for specific environments, so they'll be willing to actually help you out when you need it.

Concrete Genie's puzzles are not overly complex. By and large, they amount to finding the lightbulbs, turning them on, and occasionally hitting the "Summon Genie" button near a color-coded block. The game spends a fair amount of time teaching you how these things work, but unfortunately, for reasons I'll get into shortly, it never quite manages to get out of the tutorial phase. Occasionally, you'll need to climb buildings or find hidden passages, but it's not taxing.

The nice thing is that Concrete Genie is very relaxing. The core gameplay is simple but fun, and it has a good loop of collecting pages to unlock more parts so you can further customize your genie. There are hidden collectibles and secrets scattered throughout the levels, which are themselves simple puzzles that allow you to unlock more options. There is slight pressure in the form of avoiding bullies that chase you, but I barely noticed they existed, and they're not difficult to evade.

Concrete Genie's biggest weakness comes about 75% of the way through the game. When I mentioned spoilers, this is what I was talking about, so stop reading here if you don't want to hear it.

You've been warned.

There's no turning back now.

Near the end of the game, the darkness that is overtaking the town possesses your genies, takes them from you, and then takes over the entire town.

As soon as this occurs, the gameplay in Concrete Genie completely changes. The genies are all but removed from the game and are replaced by "dark genies" who represent a series of boss fights that involve a brand-new combat system where Ash can shoot fire, lightning and wind blasts from his magic brush. He also spontaneously gains the ability to skate around on a magical paint-based hoverboard, dodge attacks, and run out of HP.

After 75% of a charming platformer/light puzzle game, you're suddenly playing an action title that honestly isn't that hot. The combat is extremely basic, and you spend most of the fights chasing enemies before they stop. Then you get into a boss fight against enemies who basically fight exactly the same.

This felt like a huge misstep. By the time I reached this point, the game had gradually been pushing more and more genie features, and I was fully expecting the puzzles to start integrating various genies together or adding some more complexity. Instead, you get two puzzles in the entire game that use more than one genie, and then you're thrust into a mediocre action game. The tone and feel of the game also change. Gone are the charming genies and the paint-based mechanics that had been so central, and they're replaced by button-mashing and uninspired combat.

I sort of understand why this happened. The things you do in the first 75% of the game can influence some of what you see near the end visually, and that would be a neat twist. However, it feels like an entirely different game was tacked on to the end of the first game. The end result feels distinctly unsatisfying, since you're just about to get into "meaty" puzzle gameplay but instead revert to basic tutorials for combat, and once all of the combat options have been introduced, you're already at the end of the game.

Unfortunately, this leads to Concrete Genie feeling more like a tech demo than a game. Each of the individual mechanics is pretty neat in theory, and even the combat feels like something that could've evolved if it had a game to grow into. None of the elements come together in any meaningful way, and the result is a disjointed mishmash of various gameplay concepts. It feels unsatisfying that the story beats that should revolve around Ash's creativity and ability to return color to a dreary world instead revolve around him shooting fireballs at a monster.

Concrete Genie is a good-looking game. The environments are colorful, especially once you have some time to paint them. I was a bit disappointed that one of the three environments was a sewer level, but it helped that I was able to add some brightness to it. The characters are animated like old-school Claymation dolls, which gives the game a distinctive look. I'm also super fond of the genies, who are lovingly animated and have lots of little quirks. The voice acting is fairly solid, but Ash does the majority of the heavy lifting in that regard.

Alas, Concrete Genie is far less than the sum of its parts. A strong early game is lost by a bizarre late-game twist that undoes a lot of the charm. If it had just focused on the genies or had been about combat from the start, Concrete Genie would be a much more cohesive experience. Instead, the game has a lot of good moments but ends on a particularly dissatisfying note. There's still a lot to enjoy, but the flaws stand out as brightly as the strengths.

Score: 7.5/10

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