You’ve never played a game like Concrete Genie before, but this is unmistakably a product of Sony’s first-party. Developed by PixelOpus – a curious mix of game development graduates paired with industry veterans – the third-person adventure sees you painting ethereal monsters onto the walls of a dilapidated sea port, which was once a bustling community that’s now been lost to time.
As protagonist Ash – a kind of stop-motion Delsin Rowe – you’ll wield a magical paintbrush, which you can use to emulsion all kinds of magical foliage and fauna upon the abandoned cannery’s industrial walls. The greater plot sees the aforementioned adolescent being bullied by local delinquents, and so there’s a very obvious metaphor in his imagination becoming his sanctuary in a world that seems unfair.
The gameplay, though, is great. While the opening moments surprise with simplistic platforming and set-pieces, it’s once you’re set free into the first area’s fishing harbour that the loop establishes itself. Painting using the gyroscopes in the DualShock 4, you’ll collect sketches around the world which can then be used to make masterpieces.
What’s interesting is how the game is able to make an artist out of anyone. Where Dreams comes with a steep learning curve and boundless ambition, this sophomore effort is almost the exact opposite; you’re more restricted in the kind of artwork that you can create, but everything you do is going to look absolutely gorgeous – even if the absence of HDR is a head scratcher of an omission.
It’s neat because the developer’s managed to make the act of painting extremely rewarding. If you want to add some glittery trees to your scenes, for example, then you’ll draw a line across the so-called concrete; seeds will then drop from your paintbrush and flourish into a beautiful forest. You can even set the direction of flowers and the size of suns – it’s all very tactile.
While the initial objective is simply to paint in order to illuminate old fairy lamps, you’ll later encounter walls infected by a kind of rot, and this is where your genies come in. Monsters can be designed, with tendrils and teeth added as you desire. Once brought to life, these ethereal beings will follow you around, and creating the kind of scenes they like will reward you with Super Paint.
You can then use this supercharged substance to clear away any mould, and conclude your decorating mission. While there’s no obligation to paint pretty pictures, it’s quite surprising how compulsive it can be to get things looking just right; we’re not sure how long this will remain compelling for, but the developer does have a couple of tricks up its sleeve.
There’s one major twist that we’ll touch upon imminently, but it’s worth mentioning that puzzles have been added to mix things up. Red genies, for example, can be leveraged to burn away objects in the real world, so when you need to remove a tarpaulin from a conveniently climbable cart of boxes, you can use your ethereal allies to your advantage.
The game feels very Sony because there’s a surprising amount of cinematic ambition on display. This is not simply a sandbox that you paint, as perhaps many originally envisioned; there are stop motion-inspired cutscenes and big set-piece moments – in fact, there's even some straightforward scrambling, which owes its existence to Nathan Drake.
But the biggest surprise comes in the form of combat. We only got to play one level of the PS4 exclusive’s airbrush tinted action, but it seems superbly slick and a much-needed change of pace from the title’s underlying artistic efforts. Battling against evil genies, you’ll glide effortlessly around using your brush as a kind of makeshift magic broomstick, tossing out paint in the direction of your foes.
It does feel a teensy bit bullet-spongey, as you whittle down armour before being able to attack the adversary inside it, but there’s definite potential here as the campaign matures. Looking at the control sheet provided to us during our hands on, it seems there will be different types of attack that you’ll unlock, and we’d assume these will play into multifaceted encounters.
For now, though, we're satisfied knowing that there's more than meets the eye here. This is a bold production compared to the developer’s previous effort, the misunderstood Entwined, and that somewhat surprised us. PixelOpus has said that its ambition is to make imaginative and beautiful games with heart, and it’s comfortably living up to its mantra with this attempt.
Will you be wielding a magic paint brush and exploring your inner Neil Buchanan when Concrete Genie launches on 8th October in North America and 9th October in Europe? Make your mark in the comments section below.