Two weeks ago we were in Berlin to play Concrete Genie, the latest colourful adventure by small Californian Sony studio Pixelopus (Entwined). During our visit, the developer showed us an expanded beta build of the game's E3 demo from 2018, and it illustrated the beginning of Ash's adventure. In addition to this introduction to the game's mechanics, we also saw the VR mode in action and learned the game's release date.
At the beginning of the game we find ourselves in Denska, a rundown waterfront. A group of young children roams the streets, banging street lamps and windows out of boredom. Ash lingers there as well, but prefers to spend his time scribbling in a notebook - in it he draws little monsters and past memories. He has a connection to this place, however, it has changed dramatically over the last few years. The young artist (we're calling him that because there's a brush in his hair) knows all too well that he should stay away - and not only because of the troublemakers. However, lost in his drawing he forgets the time and is suddenly surprised by the gang, who tear up his sketchbook and put him in a rusty chairlift, one which carries Ash over to a supposedly abandoned lighthouse.
On the island we become acquainted with the basic mechanics - we look around, perform some simple platforming moves, and pet some animals (which has no use but sure is cute). A short time later we find a magical brush that introduces us to the core gameplay, and with this tool we can paint and transform the dull environments all around us into colourful scenes. This is, in a way, our job in Concrete Genie - to turn a rundown city into a gorgeous sea of colour.
From there on we can use our brush whenever we felt like it. We can only paint on walls, and we can do so by choosing one of the many art assets available to us. This way we can magically place a starry sky, auroras, or even campfires, drawing them by tilting the controller. As you might expect, this can be fussy and definitely needs some getting used to, but the system seemed fairly solid - considering the fact that it's motion controlled, at least.
Painting a whole city is no easy task, but Ash isn't alone in this endeavour as he can also bring his monster friends to life via his mysterious brush. We can customise these so-called genies individually, using set body parts to give them the limbs they need to move on their own. We look forward to making some cool designs with strange body parts thrown together, although if something goes wrong when drawing your masterpiece, the previous brushstroke can always be undone.
After the tutorial area, we found ourselves back in the Denska district. Our next task was to accompany our newly-drawn genie friend somewhere it could use its abilities. This first little fella could spit fire, for example, which can be used to open curtains or shut windows. With their help we can enter different areas, solving environmental puzzles as we explore. It looks like our progress will be driven by our creativity because as we decorate the different walls, fairy lights will light up, and these signal when our creature can move onto the next area.
Whether we're creating little masterpieces or just doodling a bit, the game doesn't seem to care all that much (and we still don't know if the other characters react to our work and whether they can see the colour or not). It's definitely nice to see our art glowing so brightly - the city looks more welcoming even with our own pitiful art work. For the artistically challenged among us, one way we'll be able to add more variety to our pictures is by collecting Ash's notepad pages, which are flying around town. These collectables give him access to new assets, new genie components, and some of them are also needed to perform certain actions.
In the game world you will find pieces of art that have to be recreated using the designs we've collected. Every now and then, our genie has special demands, like asking us to draw an apple tree, and we have to combine the appropriate assets to satisfy the genie, which in turn gives us some so-called super paint (more on that in a bit). Thus, collecting is a part of Concrete Genie, but that is likely the easy bit. Ash's notepad pages are displayed on the map and there's also a small gnome in our backpack who also tells us if there is something exciting nearby. Oh, and since Ash climbs on rooftops fairly regularly, the game will offer some nice views of your drawings, too.
As we decorate the walls around town we encounter various obstacles. For example, the mean kids are lolling around in the port area and they will pull our brush off (which is a fail state), so we need to distract the group by luring them away and shaking them off during the ensuing chase, which can be done by climbing up onto a roof. We also discover the reason why this part of town has been abandoned, as nasty tentacles often turn up and try to hurt Ash. They can limit our creative output, which we can only remove with the super paint. As already mentioned, we get that paint from satisfied genies, so you first need a safe place away from the dangers of the abandoned city so you can play with your creature and get the special paint from them that you need to progress.
The interaction between Ash and his new friends looks cute even at this early stage. Our young hero plays with them from time to time, communicating with them too. That said, the demo also showed us some more serious undertones - Concrete Genie is not only about drawing and having fun with your pals. At the end of the demonstration, a dark genie suddenly appeared and we had to defeat it, and we saw Ash jumping on his skateboard and shooting at this dangerous new foe with his magical brush.
Incidentally, Concrete Genie will also get a VR mode, but for that Pixelopus reduced the number of game mechanics to a minimum. In the left hand we hold a colour palette that gives us access to the different painting effects, and with the right hand we can choose from the palette on our left and position our art on the screen. If you can, just imagine yourself standing in a painting that you can decorate from the inside, all while a little gnome called Splosh plays the role of narrator in your artistic adventure. Of course, you'll still have to satisfy the genie, otherwise you'll make no progress, but overall the integration of VR looks like a cool gimmick.
While the underlining gameplay experience doesn't expect you to work in virtual reality, it's nice to have the option. Regardless of how you play, however, Pixelopus has made it clear that this little adventure is aiming to be an exciting and engaging experience for players of all ages. Whether they succeed, we will learn on October 9 when the game lands exclusively on PS4.
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