Sony is in a good spot when it comes to exclusive games right now. The Last of Us: Part II is coming next year as a title to look forward to, and the catalog behind us is packed with gems like God of War and Spider-Man, so when Pixelopus' Concrete Genie was first revealed, ambitions were understandably high. This is another PS4 exclusive, a title that has increasingly become synonymous with high quality, cinematic, and visually impressive.
If you've seen the trailers, you'll understand the core concept of this game straight away. You play as Ash, a boy in a dark and dreary world, who harnesses the powers of magical genies to breathe life and colour back into the town of Denska. Early in the game you visit a lighthouse, at which point you get a magical paintbrush that allows you to colour the walls and interact with the movie genies on them, even creating the genies yourself with customisable features.
Pixelopus slowly introduces and tutorialises the mechanics as you go, including super paint to clear darkness (a kind of goo that has corrupted parts of the town). After you're introduced to all of these mechanics in the first chapter, you're tasked with heading into Denska and cheering the place up a bit, which involves going to various zones and lighting up all of the lightbulbs within, which is done by painting the adjacent walls. This then unlocks the next zone, and rinse and repeat for the most part.
The issue is that this becomes repetitive very quickly, as you're more of a wall painter than an artist for most of the game. Couple this with the fact that the bullies of the town can grab you and steal your paintbrush when you're on the floor, forcing you to climb up on rooftops using awkward, janky Assassin's Creed-esque animations, and it becomes a rather tedious affair after a few zones. The bullies are more of an annoyance than anything else too, and we ran past them most of the time rather than sneaking around, as we were encouraged, because they're incredibly slow.
The genies themselves offer some variety, but only a little. Fire genies can light things on fire, yellow genies can electrify objects, and blue genies can blow gusts to alter the environment. It's a family-friendly game, so none of this is too taxing, but it's a welcome change of pace, and you'll also need to find floating pages containing designs so you can please your genies too. When pleased, they'll move to your command once again, and they'll also fill your super paint meter as well.
After another few chapters, introducing these various genies, the game suddenly changes pace. We won't say what happens in the plot to cause this, but essentially Pixelopus throws the puzzles out of the window to turn Concrete Genie into a basic and functional third-person game, with a few different attacks based on the various genies' abilities. This sees you chase enemies around the existing areas you've already been through, using a Frozone-esque paint ability to zoom around at a faster speed.
It's a baffling and jarring shift that happens all of a sudden, and although it adds a splash of variety, again this quickly becomes tedious. Enemies just need a flurry of two different attacks, before then slowly approaching and taming them, and later on the painting-on-walls mechanic returns in full force, except this time it's more of a checklist of painting things to please genies, making it feel like a box-ticking exercise more than a creation of artwork.
In fact, that's the case for most of the game, as you're painting what you're told to rather than what you want to. The genies are constantly asking for specific designs, even when you get to make the 'masterpieces', which are giant canvases on the sides of buildings that come to life after you're finished. There's room for creativity, but it's stifled by the constant demands, and that's without mentioning the frustrating motion controls used to paint (we switched them off, which luckily you're able to do in the menus, switching it to the right stick).
These shortcomings are unfortunately also the reasons why the included PlayStation VR mode won't entertain you for long. The structured part of this aspect takes us beneath the ominous lighthouse, where a genie called Splotch mostly just wants to be entertained and tasks us with painting specific things on walls and such.
Much like the core game, the VR portion suffers from its restrictions. After being able to paint fairly freely at first, Splotch starts making requests, which limits your imagination to some degree. Having these restrictions only becomes all the more frustrating because you have to use the Move controllers. Why force us to use controllers with such potential when we're basically just placing certain objects on a canvas? Sure, finishing the structured part after 20 to 30 minutes unlocks the Free Paint mode, but this likely won't hold your attention for long either, as the campaign's shortcoming shines through here as well.
In terms of the story with this rather short game, which we finished in around three to four hours, it feels very much like an animated film, since it's a twee tale of a boy who wants to bring happiness back to a town devoid of life. It's very predictable, and despite the cinematic cutscenes, Ash and the others just aren't given enough time to breathe in the plot and make enough of an emotional impact. We're thrown in, told that Denska is worth saving, and that's all the context we get.
What's more is that the levels and environments themselves are dull. Yes, that's the point, but it doesn't make it that entertaining when the only thing that's interesting is your art on the walls, as you'll mostly be walking around dingy sewers, factories, and houses. There are collectible extra pages to find as well, but with the awkward climbing we didn't really fancy exploring every nook and cranny.
To give credit where it's due though, the visuals when it comes to your paintbrush and its creations are excellent. Creating your genie and watching it spring to life on the walls is really something, as are the masterpieces and the colourful elements you can bring to life as well, producing some moments that many will find a lot of joy in. The photo mode is a must as well, as this is where the game shines in a literal sense.
When all's said and done though we were left underwhelmed by Concrete Genie. On the outside it looks like a magical tale about bringing joy back to a desolate town, but in practice it's a dismal journey through dark and repetitive environments doing equally repetitive jobs to get the plot moving. There's some joy to be found in your creations, but even those are stripped of fun when they become a box-ticking exercise, leaving Concrete Genie, sadly, as a PS4 exclusive that doesn't come close to the quality of its peers.
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