“Art is lame,” proclaims a graffitied wall in Denska, an abandoned fishing village in Concrete Genie. It’s not a pretty place — a rusted-out husk of civilization abandoned after an oil spill and now roamed by teenage delinquents, whose handwork is spray-painted next to the various windows they’ve thrown rocks into. They have slingshots, brightly-colored hair, and straws through which to blow spitballs at our jean-jacketed, beanie-bearing hero. Wielding an enormous magic paintbrush, he opposes those who besmirch the inherent non-lameness of Art by painting over the graffiti and general decay with flowers and grass and trees and things, hoping to spruce Denska up again. This is a job for Brush Boy.
“Brush Boy,” whose actual name is Ash, is a sensitive artiste bullied by teens until one day when he is chased up to the lighthouse and into the arms of a friendly art ghost named Luna. Empowered by her magic brush, Ash (or, as another brilliant jab goes, “Ash the Paint Nerd”) runs and jumps and generally 3D-platforms around Denska to paint lovely landscapes as well as hairy monster folk with horns and teeth and such that he calls genies. Thanks to Luna’s gift, his art comes to two-dimensional life — draw a rain cloud and the mural starts raining, while the genies coo and smile as they move from wall to wall, following Ash around town like some pied paint-monster piper.
Brush Boy Begins
Ash can freely paint most walls, though bulbs strung around the area like Christmas lights mark where he must paint to shoo away the branches and brambles of (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) “the Darkness” that chokes Denska, rendering it inhospitable. Paint every designated zone in an area and the Darkness will dissipate, opening a gate or activating some object for the genies to help you progress.
There are some light puzzles built around this idea — yellow genies, for example, are electric and can power up certain machines — as well as some even lighter stealth elements to duck the delinquents, but much of Concrete Genie is dedicated to painting. You select what are essentially stickers collected from stray sketchbook pages floating around Denska and affix them to walls, with your brushstrokes determining the size and placement of, say, a mushroom or campfire.
Perhaps this sounds underwhelming or even, if you’re an adorably banal teenage street tough, “lame.” But there’s a pleasant ease to managing the game’s beautiful artwork, as you add some tufts of green grass here or a huge moon there and then maybe a glowing bulb plant for the genies to play with. Though the toolset is too limited to develop any personal style, it’s marvelously easy to transform a drab wall into something gorgeous and still appreciably yours based on the images you’ve chosen and how you’ve chosen to arrange them.
Small grassy knolls grow beneath the mushrooms you place, and the painted sun will automatically reflect on the painted water. The art takes on an ethereal glow, too, easily seen from a distance as you move through the world, transforming Denska (or, as another bit of graffiti dubs it, “Dumb-ska”) one splotch of paint at a time. Paint what the genies request and they’ll give you “super paint” to cover the Darkness-infested walls.
Concrete Genie functions less as a blank canvas than as an elaborate, somewhat free-form coloring book. If such constraints seem antithetical to any themes about the Power of Creativity, though, it’s still quite a relaxing experience to color between the lines around Denska. The delinquents are easy to avoid, and the most difficult challenges for the majority of the game are finding the right sketchbook page to repaint a sign and finding the bulbs that mark need-to-paint areas. Even the hairy genies are customizable enough to allow for some personal expression, as you choose their bodies, tails, horns, and other features without much restriction, letting you create some truly ghastly Cronenbergian abominations. Or you can just go around painting a lot of flowers, because those are nice, too.
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What’s less nice, though, is how the game’s back third takes a detour into more traditional video game territory. At this point, Concrete Genie abruptly foists a health bar upon the bottom-right corner of the screen and turns your super paint meter into a super attack meter to help you destroy enemy minions and bosses. It adds a bunch of cutscenes to complement the various Sony-isms that encompass the game like the light stealth or the stakes-less Uncharted platforming where you leap from one handhold to the next, the viable path neatly marked with encrusted bird poop. Ash even dresses like the guy from Infamous: Second Son.
The combat section doesn’t last long, but it’s enough to throw Concrete Genie’s most tired elements into sharp relief. As a unique, free-form painting exercise, it’s easy enough to ignore any hoary trappings (particularly in the context of a game targeted at younger audiences), but as a deeply familiar capital-V Video Game that throws cutscene after cutscene your way, it feels trite. Mind-numbing, even. Out of your hands and in a more traditional structure, the whimsical sense of conflict is so tired that it feels manufactured — the “Darkness,” the tugs on the heartstrings, the musical strings on the soundtrack to better tug at the heartstrings, even the sky-splitting laser.
Concrete Genie is a beautiful game, but beautiful in a way that has begun to feel quite rote. Without the basic joy of running around painting, it becomes yet another handsomely mounted struggle against what seems to be the only way we may conceive conflict, another personified Dark Thing of negative emotions. For a game that so vibrantly celebrates the joy of making something, of watching art come to life before your eyes, it’s puzzling to see it eventually slide into something so flat and lifeless.