Republished on Wednesday 27th January, 2021: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of February 2021's PS Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Of all Sony's in-house developers, Pixelopus perhaps has the most to prove. Its debut game, Entwined, didn't set the world alight, and so its follow-up needed to up the ante. It's fair to say the young team has done just that with Concrete Genie, a far more ambitious title that aligns itself more with the regular output of Worldwide Studios. That's not to say this is your typical PlayStation 4 exclusive — far from it.
Having clearly been inspired by the cinematic storytelling of Sony's major players, the game begins by introducing you to Ash, a young boy with an artistic flair. As he's minding his own business, some bullies arrive, steal his sketchbook, and tear out all the pages before sending him up to the supposedly haunted lighthouse. Equally as important as Ash is the town of Denska, abandoned and overrun by delinquents after an accident causes a mysterious dark rot to take hold. After Ash receives a magical paintbrush, a decent tutorial gets you familiarised with the basics, and then you're tasked with reviving the town by painting living murals on its decrepit walls.
It's important we mention the tutorial, because Concrete Genie's controls are somewhat unorthodox. Ash controls as you'd expect - he even scales buildings like a low rent Nathan Drake - but when you're in paint mode, the DualShock 4's gyro sensor takes precedence. The good news is that painting is wonderfully tactile and intuitive. After highlighting your chosen design, you simply hold R2 and move the cursor as if painting a brushstroke. Motion controls don't sit well with everyone, and you can swap them out for the right stick if you prefer, but they do make the game very accessible, and it feels wonderful to have your actions turn into glowing, animated pictures.
You can't exactly freestyle, however. Painting is restricted to the pages you've unlocked or found within the miniature open world, each one giving you either new landscape items, genie decorations, or new genies to create. Despite not being able to paint just anything, you have plenty of freedom within the boundaries. What's more, it's almost impossible to make something that doesn't look wonderful — even if you've not a creative bone in your body. The fruits of your labour are almost always a sight to behold — it's satisfying, and sure to bring a smile to your face.
The titular genies are the stars of the show. Dotted throughout each area of the map are opportunities to paint these monsters that inhabit your murals, and again, it's largely up to you what they look like. However you present them, these creatures are much needed companions in an otherwise pretty solitary adventure. They can interact with you and each other in several ways, but most importantly, they'll help you out with some environmental puzzles. This isn't a game about challenge, so don't expect to be stumped by these, but the occasional obstacle in your path is a nice change of pace, even if the act of painting is consistently pleasing.
What is unusual is how combat is introduced to Concrete Genie. We don't want to spoil anything, but combat makes an abrupt and short-lived appearance at the end of the eight-hour story. After a relaxed, gently paced jaunt as you brighten up Denska, you'll very suddenly learn to fight and to paint surf, the latter of which allows you to move much more quickly. It's a jarring change, and one you'll need to grow accustomed to fairly quickly. The final hour or so is spent largely battling paint monsters, but holding it off like this feels as though the studio lacked confidence in this aspect of the game. It's kept in context by the story, of course, but it's a clumsy final step.
Despite its unusual arrival, combat is a fun addition. Like his genies, Ash's attacks come in the form of fire, electric, or wind, and you'll need to match your offence to the corresponding shields. You can use your newfound paint surfing to stay mobile, and a generous dodge will get you out of harm's way. It's fast and frantic stuff that, although hardly anything special, is pretty fun while it lasts. Quite why it's all left until right near the end is beyond us; if anything, peppering the story with small combat scenarios would've helped to keep things ticking along.
The art style, meanwhile, is gorgeous, and we love the almost stop-motion quality to the characters. Denska can initially feel a little cold, but that's by design — it's literally a canvas upon which you can decorate to your heart's content. The Free Painting mode allows you to go to the various areas of the map and start over with no distractions, which is a nice distraction. If you happen to have PlayStation VR, you can also dip into a supplementary mode that acts as a virtual extension to the main event. You'll need a pair of Move controllers, but it's similarly whimsical, if a little on the slim side.
The VR mode operates at a smooth frame rate, as is the requirement, but sadly the main game falters in this regard. It's not a constant bother, but uncharacteristically for a first party title, performance does take a hit every now and again. Animations can feel a little clunky, too, but again, this shouldn't get in the way all that much. The usual polish attributed to Sony's games just isn't quite there. Thankfully, this is a title that just about gets away with missteps like these because of its sheer charm. It isn't perfect, but this is absolutely a step in the right direction for Pixelopus.
Concrete Genie is a warm, joyful experience that embraces creativity in a unique way. Painting your way through Denska is effortlessly fun, and the genies that help Ash through his adventure are delightful. While this main thrust of the game is well realised, combat feels like an afterthought, as it's stashed away right at the end. This and a couple of smaller issues hold the game back from greatness, but taken as a whole, this is definitely worth playing — and pretty as a picture, too.