Concrete Genie

Platform(s): PlayStation 4
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Pixelopus
Release Date: Oct. 8, 2019 (US), Oct. 9, 2019 (EU)


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PS4 Preview - 'Concrete Genie'

by Redmond Carolipio on June 27, 2018 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Concrete Genie is an action adventure game about a boy called Ash who discovers he can bring his paintings to life.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda, Nas and Aloe Blacc did a song together for the "Hamilton" soundtrack called "Wrote My Way Out," in which each of them describe how they used their gift with words to break free of the oppressive restraints within their respective worlds. Miranda's verses are especially intriguing, as he recounts being bullied for being well-read and artistic. "Oh, you think you smart?" he remembers the bullies saying, just before hitting him.

Concrete Genie isn't about writing, but it is about art and the consequences people pay for expressing themselves and exploring the world differently than "everyone else." This upcoming piece from PixelOpus tackles the concept of bullying, and how one teenager uses his art to not only escape the world around him, but perhaps also rescue it in the process.

You play as 14-year-old Ash, a teen from the fictional town of Denska who, instead of writing, paints his way out of everything. He's an artist who seems to want nothing more than to create stuff. There's a group of bullying kids who don't like that about him, calling him "weird" or "freak," so they gang up on him and scatter the pages of his sketchbook all around town. However, Ash's mission isn't about bestowing vengeance upon them. It's about infusing life back into Denska by painting his brand of colorful landscapes and creatures upon Denska's myriad dark, lifeless surfaces. He does so with magic paint and his broadsword-sized paintbrush.

The demo I played at E3 2018 broke down the dynamics of how Ash can "save" the town. At the outset, Concrete Genie has the look of an artisanal, bouncy third-person action game like Ratchet & Clank or Brutal Legend. But instead of finding enemies, Ash must find walls to paint and the flying pages of his sketchbook, which feature a potpourri of creature designs, landscapes and elemental weather effects. The more pages you run into, the more stuff Ash can paint.

Denska's humble buildings provide plenty of canvases for Ash, and when you find one, a press of the button puts the camera directly behind him, zooming out just enough so that the painting surface looms large. The experience then becomes a painting minigame, with accessible menus on the right and left featuring all of Ash's collected designs. Then, using a combination of the PS4 touchpad, buttons and thumbsticks, you paint your creature.

I started off with an oddly shaped but strangely cute creature that I blessed with arms, a weirdly placed tail and some horns. As you paint, you'll also start illuminating the dead lights that adorn most of the surfaces, and after you're done painting, another button press actually brings your creation to life. It moves around, looks at you, acts relatively independent of itself, and occasionally asks you for stuff via its own iconographic communication. Basically, if it would like you to paint a fire for it, a bubble with flames in it will pop up next to it and you might hear it cutely "rawr" at you. If you paint a landscape for it across several walls, it'll actually follow Ash. I did that to make some room for the fire, which it laid next to and growled in approval. That's where you start to realize what creatures like this mean to Ash: They are his friends. Therefore, players will find themselves bonding to their creations and perhaps taking greater care in how they build and protect them.

Ash's emotional bonds are put to the test when the bullies start roaming around town looking for him. He can't fight them; he can only avoid them through stealth, running away or jumping up on rooftops, showing some very, very light Nate Drake, Lara Croft-ish climbing ability. If the bullies are too close to the creatures and landscapes he's made, then your adorable creature and whatever sun, stars and landscape you made will get smaller and smaller until they practically disappear. I can only guess that Ash can re-paint new creatures and undo the bullies' damage, but the shrinking away is meant to reflect Ash's feelings when the bullies draw near, according to PixelOpus. That's just damn heartbreaking. If the bullies end up catching him, they can do a bunch of bad things to him, perhaps — worst of all — steal his brush.

It would be easy to wish teen Kratos or Atreus upon these bullies, but I like how Ash's mission of illuminating the dark spots of his hometown never wavers. It needs help — there are even spaces on Denska that have been overtaken by actual, tangible darkness, where Ash needs the power of super-paint to undo it. That's bestowed upon you when the awesome creature you made is in the vicinity, which just makes you like them more.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Concrete Genie's potential is the messaging. To me, it looks like a statement about the crippling effects of bullying and the power of pure art. I look forward to seeing what else it has to say when it comes out later this year.

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