The power of art isn’t as rare in gaming as you might think. From Okami’s painterly wand waving to Delsin Rowe’s attitude-filled graffiti cans, developers have put a lot of thought into matching the real-world act of creating art to its digital representation. However, whether it’s been reproducing shapes via the analogue stick or a rough 1:1 representation via motion controls, games ultimately struggle to capture free-flowing creativity by forcing it into something specific and structured.
Concrete Genie from Pixelopus is the latest in the storied painting sub-genre, and while once again motion controls are in full effect, it’s taking a completely different approach to creating a video game masterpiece.
You’re Ash, a latch-key kid whose days are filled with sketching in his notebook. He spends his time hanging out in his former home Denska, an abandoned fishing town that’s been left to rot after a catastrophic oil spill drove everyone out. It’s a dreary, decaying place that’s only frequented by delinquents whose entertainment consists almost entirely of picking on Ash, and lurking there is a darkness that’s set to consume the town. From the opening it’s clear that Pixelopus have aimed to bring to life the darker end of children’s animated fantasy, with a touch of Burton here, a dash of Laika studio there. Satisfyingly it’s a worthy comparison.
The bullies soon ruin Ash’s day by ripping out the pages of his notebook and scattering them to the wind, before trapping him in a cable car that’s set on a one-way trip to an old lighthouse. It’s here though that he encounters Luna, the first of the titular Genies, who bestows upon him a magic paintbrush and sets him off to bring life back to Denska through the medium of supernatural art.
Each part of town features a series of grim brown and grey buildings that are just begging for you to go wild with your paintbrush. Your notebook slowly fills back up with designs and once you’ve decided where they’re going to go, you can use the Dualshock 4’s motion control to ‘paint’ them onto most surfaces, controlling their direction and size with deft movement of your controller. It feels surprisingly natural in no time at all, and it’s probably the closest any game has come to nailing the experience of painting. It also looks beautiful. Trees, grass, flowers and butterflies zip from your paintbrush onto the walls with ease, and as you splash your designs across the walls you light bulbs that drive the darkness away.
It doesn’t quite ask you to go wild though, at least not until much later. You’re drip-fed the designs that you can paint, and if you’re utterly devoid of any artistic vision you could mostly use the same one across the whole town. Fortunately, Concrete Genie helps you tap into your creative spark, with huge Masterpieces to complete, and rotten paintings that you can revitalise with the right designs. The Genies themselves need a little more from you though, with certain spots where you can paint them into life before they can help you on your way.
Fire Genies can set fire to tarpaulins, Electric Genies can reactivate decaying machinery and Wind Genies can blow things into place to help you out with the light puzzles put in your way. You need to keep them sweet though, to convince them to scamper along the walls to where you need them to be – one of my favourite visual elements in the whole game. You do that by matching your paint designs to their desires, whether that’s a grove of trees or a glowing yellow sun, with the added benefit that a happy Genie will give you Super Paint that amplifies your abilities, and lets you clear away particularly troublesome areas where darkness has taken hold.
Concrete Genie looks and feels like a children’s animated movie, and its straightforward fantasy tale builds upon that. There are moments of emotion, particularly in the well-handled flashbacks that each of the children experience, but there aren’t any immense twists or turns to properly sink your teeth into during it’s short runtime. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable – it is, and fantastically well produced – but this is more pre-teen fiction than young adult. It sounds suitably delightful as well, with subdued strings backing an experience that is largely non-combative. You’re mainly trying to avoid conflict and revitalise your home, which feels distinctly unique in the third person adventure space.
It’s a shame to discover that the game’s VR mode – the development of which delayed the game’s release – is a slight frivolity that adds little to the overall experience. What it does get right, and what feels really impressive, is the 1:1 tracking for the paint brush. It’s testament to the main game’s implementation of the Dualshock 4’s motion control that the jump to using a Move doesn’t feel completely different, but the added nuance you get with it really sells the experience.
It’s disappointing then that Splotch’s adventure is merely half an hour of recycled mechanics from the main game translated into a 3D space. Here you can add elements to your surroundings, with new designs added to your notebook as you progress. It amounts to a VR paint by numbers, and perhaps most damningly, it doesn’t have the same sense of wonder or beauty that the main narrative sells to you. Sure, there are some nice touches, like painting hollow tubes and then whipping the wind through them to make noise, but it’s slow and fundamentally dull.
You need to get through it to open up free painting, and there’s at least some small amount of fun to be dragged out of heading into some of the game’s central environments and painting in first person. Perhaps it’s a proof of concept for a PS5 sequel where the whole game is in VR, but we’re a long way away from that. All it really made me want to do was head back to the main game and paint there, so that’s what I did.