‘Concrete Genie’ PS4 review: A mediocre platformer meets a charming sandbox
Concrete Genie retails for $30. And while the price isn’t everything, it’s something I kept in mind while I played Pixelopus’s latest release, a graffiti-driven children’s tale about friendship in an age of darkness. Concrete Genie is not a perfect game, but it could be a perfect start for a series or franchise given the solid foundation underlying a wildly fun and creative game, albeit a short and poorly-paced one.
The plot is basically Ghostbusters II. An indestructible ooze creeps across Denska, the seaside hometown of Ash, our young hero. The ooze feeds off negative emotions, but instead of making the Statue of Liberty boogie to Jackie Wilson, you create phantasmic murals with a magical paintbrush that drives the darkness away. The painting mechanics are great, with intuitive motion controls (you dip the controller up and down like a brush) and a system that lets people with no artistic ability (i.e. me) make masterpieces. It must’ve taken a lot of work to get such a crucial mechanic exactly right. But the team at Pixelopus did. Kudos.
What you paint is limited to designs found in your sketchbook, a Macguffin of sorts that is torn asunder and scattered on the winds by local bullies. This gives cover to some old-fashioned collectible hunting: grab more pages, paint more stuff. Specifically, you paint landscapes themed around a season - spring, summer, fall and winter - that reduce darkness by magically illuminating any nearby strings of lightbulbs hanging around Denska. Lightbulb locations are marked on your map so, aside from some light platform puzzling, they’re easy to find.
All this magic comes courtesy of a genie named Luna. She’s not a creepy blue Will Smith genie that pops out of a lamp, but a shaggy Sendak-ian beast that lives inside the walls of a haunted lighthouse. She gives Ash the ability to paint other genies into existence at special locations across Denska, they control either fire, wind or electricity. They come in all shapes and sizes depending on what your sketchbook allows/inspires you to create. The elemental types play a role in solving puzzles, like needing a wind genie to blow a box off a ledge, and they can also give you super paint for scrubbing out especially stubborn darkness. (They don’t grant wishes, FYI.)
The game is unofficially split into two parts. The first half introduces you to the painting mechanics and the second half takes a more traditional action-adventure turn with Ash skating around on paint streaks and hurling fireballs at rogue genies. The overall pace is slow and poorly communicated. I didn’t know if I was wasting time making extra nice paintings instead of spamming shapes like suns and apples to activate lights and discover more sketchbook pages. Once the action starts, painting all but stops. In hindsight, I should have just enjoyed myself more. I rushed a short game.
Concrete Genie also scores some points for being wholesome. Asking gamers to be patient and empathetic instead of driven and aggressive is a tricky proposition, but for the most part the game does this well. But character development is a tad slow. A big hook relies on you having sympathy for Ash’s bullies, but we don’t really get to know them until after the plot turns.
Paint skating was great and I wanted more of it, but Concrete Genie is a wee game. The levels are small and the game is short. Start to finish it took me about six hours, and that includes a little extra time painting. Clearly, we’re meant to paint and paint and paint. There’s a free paint mode and a post-campaign mode that let you go full Picasso, inviting replays. There’s also a PSVR feature I didn’t test.
Back to that $30. In addition to its brevity, Concrete Genie has hollow platforming. Animations will clip in weird ways, and there’s no physics or fail states to anything. Fall too far, you go back to where you were. Falling is hard anyway, because Ash seems to operate on autopilot. For example, you swing monkey bars-style from a lot of pipes but theres no to-and-fro motion of any consequence. Just mash jump and he makes it, regardless of visual momentum.
Is this nitpicky? Sure, but a lack of polish hurts some wonderful and creative gameplay elsewhere in Concrete Genie. The price tag gives a little cover to these issues, but I’d be happy with a longer, better game even if it was more expensive. I’d even wish for one, if the genies would let me.
Concrete Genie is out now for PlayStation 4.