Concrete Genie from PixelOpus has been a mainstay of Sony's various events and presentations since the game was first unveiled at the 2017 Paris Games Week. With how often Sony has showcased the game, it's clear that the company has faith in the PS4 exclusive to deliver. And despite being only the second game from studio PixelOpus, Concrete Genie does deliver a compelling, if brief, adventure that's engrossing from start to finish.
PixelOpus's first game was Entwined, which was surprise-launched on the same day as Sony's E3 2014 press conference and received mixed reviews for being a case of style over substance. With Concrete Genie, it's clear that PixelOpus took that criticism to heart, delivering a game that's still heavy on style, but has much more compelling gameplay to keep players hooked. Imagine any of the big "artsy" games that have released on PlayStation over the years, like Flower or Journey, except with more meat on the bones, and that's concept behind Concrete Genie.
While gameplay is more important in Concrete Genie than it is in similar games, the art style is still easily the best thing about it. It's set in an abandoned port town called Denska, whose economy was wrecked by an oil spill and is now plagued by a dark supernatural presence. As one might imagine, Denska looks pretty depressing, which makes the bright, colorful paintings that player character Ash splashes all over the city really pop. The contrast between bright and dark colors is striking, though it's not the only thing that stands out when it comes to Concrete Genie's art style.
Something else players may notice is that the human characters in the game appear to be animated using stop-motion animation techniques. They honestly look like characters that would be right at home in the old Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas special. And seeing them walk around the drab streets of Denska is quite interesting from a visual standpoint.
The main character in Concrete Genie is a boy named Ash, who grew up in Denska and now returns there to sketch it how he remembers it. Unfortunately, the place has become a favorite spot of some bullies, who like to torment Ash over his artwork. The game deals with bullying in a mostly realistic manner and has a good message for kids, but it's a story that can also be just as easily enjoyed by adults.
Concrete Genie's story is full of emotional moments that are amplified by the game's wonderful soundtrack. The music is all on point, and it's another area where Concrete Genie really shines. The somber music makes exploring the abandoned streets of Denska extra depressing, but also relaxing. This isn't a game where players will be shooting everything on sight or facing down apocalyptic threats, and the music score matches the game's laidback atmosphere perfectly.
As for what Concrete Genie actually is, its gameplay is perhaps most analogous to the Jet Set Radio games. Players explore an open area and paint things on walls using a magic paintbrush that Ash obtains early on. The main goal is to restore light to the various districts of Denska by painting on the walls near strands of lightbulbs, with players usually able to progress to the next area after all the lightbulbs are lit up. It sounds boring on paper, but as previously mentioned, it's really more of a relaxing experience, and there is more to it than just painting one wall after another.
Concrete Genie's levels feature Zelda-esque puzzles for players to solve, often with the help of the titular Genies that they can create. Players are free to paint their Genies however they want, but they always fall into one of three categories. For example, red Genies are able to burn things, whereas yellow Genies are able to electrocute things. These abilities are used in puzzles to open doors or get over obstacles, though players sometimes have to appease their Genies first by painting specific objects for them.
Players are able to paint a wide variety of things in Concrete Genie, as long as they have collected the corresponding page in Ash's sketchbook. Something else that players will be doing in the game is hunting down the pages from the sketchbook, which have been ripped out and spread to the wind by the bullies. There's some platforming involved when chasing down the pages, especially the ones that run away from Ash, which adds an extra wrinkle to the gameplay.
Concrete Genie doesn't break any ground with its gameplay, but what it does it does well, though there are some weak points. Occasionally Genies will take a bit to complete certain actions and sometimes players will be missing one single lightbulb that they need to light up, which can get frustrating. The DualShock 4 motion controls also add nothing to the experience and are not ideal for the paintings that require a bit more precision, but that can be circumvented by using the right analog stick instead. These are minor complaints, though, and overall players will enjoy their time with Concrete Genie more than they won't.
There is one aspect of the game that does weigh down the experience a bit more than other problems, and that is the combat. Combat in Concrete Genie is thankfully not a big focus of the game, but what's there is dull, repetitive, and unnecessary. Players fight bosses that are all functionally the same, who require zero strategy to defeat yet have health bars that are overly long, so players basically just have to button mash until they're defeated. Anyone looking for a great video game boss fight definitely won't find it in Concrete Genie.
Thankfully combat in Concrete Genie isn't much of a focus. Players spend most of the game painting walls, avoiding bullies, and solving puzzles. Some of the established mechanics are flipped on their head later in the game as well in a way that we found to be borderline genius, but we won't go into specifics as to avoid spoilers.
Players will be able to wrap up Concrete Genie in under five hours easily, and it's not likely to take much longer than that to get all of the trophies. There are some extra modes to check out, like Free Paint and a short PlayStation VR experience that are fun to mess around in, but don't add a ton of lasting value. While the short length will be a deal-breaker for some, we would argue that Concrete Genie is better off for being on the shorter side, as it doesn't overstay its welcome or pad its gameplay with time-wasting nonsense to artificially lengthen the experience like other games tend to do. Everything is laser-focused and all the fat is trimmed so the pacing in Concrete Genie is perfect.
Concrete Genie was the most-nomiated game at Gamescom, and it's easy to see why. There are certain aspects of the game that drag the experience down a bit, but it's a mostly successful adventure game that succeeds in delivering an emotional story in a gorgeous world. PixelOpus has done a great job with its sophomore effort and it will be exciting to see what's next from the studio.
Concrete Genie launches on October 8, exclusively for PS4. Game Rant was provided a PS4 code for this review.