At the ripe old age of 24, I am jaded. I love games, but every year it seems we get stock standard reinterpretations. There's only so many times I can loot tombs or press F to pay respects. But there are rare exceptions that provide the power to reignite the real passion and magic of games. Concrete Genie is one of those.
Concrete Genie is a game that's so obviously crafted with love. It's an original, charming story that feels akin to some of animation's best tales. With its stop-motion inspiration, it reminded me a lot of the work of animation studio, Laika, particularly in regards to the art style. Everything is whimsical and fantastical, with gleaming, cheeky monsters and its spindly-legged protagonist. Every part of the game design works so well to illuminate the world and characters of the tale.
In Concrete Genie, players take on the role of Ash, a young boy who steals away into the wild world of Denska, where mysterious and deadly plants have begun to ruin and take over the town. Ash is an artist, and he fills his scrapbooks with sketches of strange creatures and scribbles from his travels, and his imagination.
It's here in Denska that he wiles away time, against his mother's wishes — but it isn't long before trouble finds him. It's in Denska that Ash encounters a vicious pack of bullies, who steal his notebook and scatter the pages to the wind.
Denska is a dark and hostile environment, and it's made even stranger when Ash stumbles into a local lighthouse in search of his lost pages. It's in the lighthouse that magic and creativity combine in Ash's hands to bring the sketches in his book to life. His "genies" are monstrous beings made of pure light, but they're also extremely affectionate, and the bond that Ash forms with them helps him to fight back against the tide of darkness overwhelming Denska.
Utilising a genie-gifted magic brush, Ash is tasked with travelling the town's dank streets and bringing light and colour to the world. A whip of his brush will bring sparkling light to the area, and another whip will bring trees and butterflies to life.
Each drawing that Ash creates is freeform, meaning that players can decorate the town however they like, bringing shining masterpieces into the world and making it a far brighter and more beautiful place. It's a genuinely gorgeous sight, and the freedom the game gives players to design murals how they like is a true joy. Here's one of mine that I'm particularly proud of:
The concepts that Concrete Genie plays with aren't new. De Blob and Epic Mickey spring to mind off the cuff, but neither handle the painting mechanic as beautifully or as effectively as Concrete Genie. The game tells a simple tale, but it's done so well that its simplicity is inconsequential. Ash is a character that is easy to relate to. Plucky, determined and creative, he's every one of us when we were children. It's part of what makes the tale so engaging and fun.
In the end, it would've been easy for developer PixelOpus to focus solely on the painting mechanic and not much else, but instead (and much to my surprise), Concrete Genie is an extremely well-crafted open world exploration game with satisfying stealth mechanics and silky smooth action. The gameplay reminded me of Infamous: Second Son, largely because of the character and world design, but also because of the parkour-like action and traversal. It's fantastic, and it actively encourages players to search in every nook and cranny for collectables and opportunities to interact with their genies.
The genies are another part of the game that are extremely delightful and part of what makes the game feel so special. Much like in Nintendo DS title, Drawn to Life players can design the genies and bring them to life in any way they see fit. As Ash travels through each area, he gains a variety of accessories and decorations that can then be applied to his genie creations.
If you want your genie to have three horns and several stray hairs, simply swipe and brush away — if you want bunny ears and a curly tail, that works just as well. Your genies are uniquely yours, and each has an important role to play in the story, and opening up the world of the game.
Underneath it all, Concrete Genie is a tale about childhood and adventure, but it's also about gentrification and the loss of the creative spirit. It's about bringing joy to a joyless town, and overcoming the monotony of everyday living through creativity. Concrete Genie is a classic tale, but everything it brings feels new and exciting.
Purely and simply — Concrete Genie is absolutely magical.