Sony does not have a huge holiday lined up. As we all wait for the current consoles to live out their last full year, both non-Nintendo console makers are seemingly releasing only one tent-pole holiday game as they save up for the big launches in 2020. Death Stranding is Sony’s lone AAA title the holiday season and while we have to wait and see if the Normal Reedus fetus game is Kojima’s magnum opus, developer Pixelopus is releasing its painting platformer, Concrete Genie. Even though it doesn’t have the budget or immediate appeal of the other first-party games, it’s got a ton of heart, a decent bit of charm, and, if you’re so bold, a bunch of genies with horns where they shouldn’t be.
Most of this charm is succinctly conveyed through its art style. The cartoonish visuals have a splash of realism to them that gives it a unique look — especially when considering the stop motion-esque facial animation reminiscent of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer movie from 1964 or, more recently, 2005’s Corpse Bride. However, the best part is how you get add to that established art style to inject some of your own personal flair.
After a lengthy setup and brief tutorial, your teenage character, Ash, comes upon a magical paintbrush that serves as the crux of the gameplay. This enchanted artistic tool lets you paint background elements like trees, apples, and stars that move as if they were alive. You can’t directly paint whatever you want like some sort of child in finger painting class, but you can arrange the predetermined objects in a way that can make your creation wholly unique. For example, someone’s wall may be just grass and fires while another person’s may be a wonderful Vincent van Gogh-esque landscape with stars, butterflies, trees, and more. The amount of objects in your arsenal only grows as you collect pages scattered around the world, which is a good incentive to search around.
Concrete Genie Preview | Painting without pressure
Concrete Genie doesn’t judge your art and seems like it will be more predisposed to people who want to play with its painting mechanics rather than those who are just trying to rush through them. Since it doesn’t require much of your artwork, it appears as though you can technically do the bare minimum. And although there were side objectives that required that players paint certain objects, it seems likely that some people might be able to burn through the critical path.
Hopefully, players will feel compelled to embrace their creative side with the relative easygoing pace of the game and take their time. After all, whether it’s out of interest or the fact that physics don’t allow us to glitch through the walls at the Guggenheim, most people probably don’t speedrun through real-life art exhibits either. Whomever the audience is, the developers are Pixelopus are trying to make every type of player into master painters and they are mostly trying to achieve that through animation and the controls themselves.
Instead painting with the analog stick, would-be painters use the motion control on the DualShock 4 to manually aim where the paint will land. It takes some acclimation as using a non-wand controller for a wand-like action is a bit odd but it allows for a sense of connection that a thumbstick just doesn’t have. Creative Director Dominic Robilliard explained how the team came to this unorthodox control scheme and how it gives players more ownership over their work.
“The [other versions of the paint mechanics] were fun and had all kinds of potential but it wasn’t until we could directly acknowledge what you were trying to do and paint on a wall that you were connected to it and had ownership of the artwork and where you could feel like you had made it,” he explained. “They all had positive merits to them but we really wanted to make it feel like you’re driving a paint stroke yourself with the DualShock 4. So that was the breakthrough.”
Concrete Genie Preview | An open canvas
Luscious environments are only a fraction of what you can create as the game’s titular genies are the stars of the show. Most hotspots require that you craft one of these beastly genies and you can customize them as you see fit. There is an array of horns, headgear, tails, body types, and more and each comes to life when you’re finished. Most of your choices even affect how the beast behaves and where Butthorn, the dog-esque genie with four large horns on his butt, was made.
Because Butthorn was drawn horizontally, it behaved more like a dog, crawling around on all fours. While the other more human-sized beasts are charming in their own ways, the more animalistic ones might be a tad easier for some to bond with because of the pet-like role they take one once they become quadrupeds. But whether or not it walks like a human or dog, Pixelopus’ genies took inspiration from other sort of dog. Well, a dog, cat, and bird hybrid: Trico from The Last Guardian.
“One of the breakthroughs that we had when making the genie creation mechanics was that we knew for them to work narratively, they had to feel like the friends Ash wished he had in real life,” Robilliard explained. So emotionally, that was really important to get right. So we knew that we would have to underwrite that relationship with gameplay and that was something that The Last Guardian did incredibly well.”
Concrete Genie Preview | The brush is mightier than the sword
As Robilliard pointed out, these genies help you in gameplay as well. If you paint certain things that they like or help them out, they’ll give you Super Paint that lets you clear out some of the dark goo that’s caked on the abandoned walls of Denska. Some of their interactions go a bit deeper as there are some genies with unique abilities that can affect the real world, meaning different types of elemental genies can use their fire breath or electricity powers to clear the way.
It adds a bit of structure and gameyness to Concrete Genie as it’s mostly a relaxed experience otherwise. Figuring out these puzzles wasn’t ever hard and that might be a sticking point when the game comes out. Having to think about how to apply your array of samples in clever ways to get over obstacles seems like a solid test of its previously challenge-free mechanics. However, it’s not clear how much players will have to think when applying paint as it seems geared more towards player choice over puzzle solving.
But for what the game may end up lacking in cerebral tests, it might make up for in twitch skills. In a shocking twist, the game has combat as demonic presences manifest in the world and must be taken down. Ash’s brush then transforms, letting him both skate around at high speeds as well as shoot magical bolts.
Combat was more responsive than it had any right to be as dodging, firing, and skating around seemed to happen rather quickly. And while evading the beast and whittling down its health wasn’t too difficult, tracking it down as it scampered around made it bit more engaging to fight than a stationary boss. It was a necessary shot of action in a game that understandably has less of it but it remains to be seen if it will continually be an engaging change of pace.
Concrete Genie Preview | Dealing with bullies
Regardless of how it turns out, the fighting mechanics serve more of a narrative purpose too. Bullying is a big theme in the game that it tackles through various ways but the combat is a more direct way of showing that conflict. But you can’t just go ahead and beat the living daylights out of the bullies in the real world so Pixelopus had to think of alternative. Luckily, they had something in mind from day one.
“We realized that when developing the theme, narrative, and story component of the game, we were looking at how to deal with bullying and we knew that we wanted the climax of the story and gameplay to be focused on the negativity itself,” said Robilliard. “So we needed a way to personify bullying as a negative thing that you could lash out at.”
Concrete Genie may be dealing with those darker subjects but the focus of the game seems to be on the calming nature of painting up some little buddies that may or may not have horns on their butt. That part of the game looks like it has potential to a soothing experience that lets players flex their creativity in an accessible way. But that also comes with the possibility of not providing enough of a gameplay challenge, which might mean the combat has to pick up that slack if it comes to that. As long as its gameplay isn’t like watching paint dry as the hours drag on, Concrete Genie looks like it could be promising enough to provide a cute and delightful adventure in a medium that could always use more of just that.