Concrete Genie follows in the footsteps of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. On the surface it's easy to parse—big monsters helping a child discover themselves—but there's something underneath about parental neglect and abandonment. Concrete Genie makes the monsters the stars of its tale, letting you construct them from scratch with a magical paintbrush before they follow you around Denska, cleansing the city of 'darkness' with a special Super Paint.
Befriending the monsters is a child called Ash, who is gifted with a magical paintbrush after losing his sketchbook at the hands of bullies. Ash quickly discovers his new paintbrush has the power to bring drawings—the titular Genies—to life, which he sees as a convenient opportunity to breathe life back into the largely abandoned town of Denska. All Ash needs to do to bring a Genie to life is face a wall, whip out the magical paintbrush, and combine a body, antlers, and tail. It's fun in brief spurts to create your own Genie, and as simple and limited as the combination of limbs are, they're suited to the imagination of the child that you're playing as.
The Genies function as big, wild animals for the most part, stumbling around the walls of Denska. The main Genie that gives Ash the magic paintbrush, called Luna, figuratively hoards all the personality from the other Genies, sort of acting as a Big Boss Genie above all the others. From a kid like Ash's point of view, silly, vibrant beasts probably make the perfect companions, but it's a shame that the Genies don't end up having much personality outside of being "big" and "dumb," with Luna generally being the only one that displays any emotion.
As a game that revolves around painting, Concrete Genie is suitably charming in its color palette. Ash constructs towering treetops in red and orange on the side of buildings, with sprawling green blue auroras overhead, and dandelions and tulips littering the ground. Concrete Genie isn't fussed with matching the correct colors with the objects Ash paints, and the game is all the better because of it. The energetic and yet simplistic score, based mainly around a piano and violin accompaniment, really goes a long way to helping Ash's journey through Denska, and his paintings at large feel more like a fairytale from a children's book.
It's a painting game on the surface, but underneath lies a pretty straightforward puzzle-adventure game. Concrete Genie generally works like this: bring a Genie to life, entertain it a little bit by painting some scenery, take the Super Paint you receive from them, and use it to paint over the mysterious Darkness that's slathered around the walls of Denska. The town is split up into roughly four distinct areas—a port, factory, houses, and waterways—and you need to conquer every area of Denska with a climactic 'masterpiece' painting in order to wrap up one ward and proceed to the next area.
It's in this formula that Concrete Genie loses its creative edge. Painting the walls of Denska with colorful Genies and scenery is entertaining enough, but the game forces you to find and paint every tiny lightbulb in an area, if you want to proceed with the story. If you miss a single light bulb on any one building in the local vicinity, you can't progress and conquer the area with a masterpiece painting. It's frustrating that Concrete Genie would hamper your progress and creativity with this backtracking, especially when painting over light bulbs doesn't actually incorporate the Genies in any way.
In the conclusion to one area with shipping containers, for example, you need to find and paint all the bulbs in the area while dodging the bullies patrolling the yard. Employing a flimsy stealth system—press a button to lure the gang and run around them—alongside backtracking to find tiny bulbs just isn't particularly fun. Although it all ties into the overarching theme of bringing color and life back to Denska, it's a shame it had to be done in this monotonous way.
Concrete Genie is a simple story of Ash trying to bring life back to a town that was once dearly beloved. But buried underneath is a story of how parents shape the futures of their children. Ash's absent parents and Denska's gang of bullies are evidence of a general lack of parenting in Concrete Genie. The magical paintbrush somehow has the power to reveal intimate details about those who touch it, like the bully called Zack, whose abusive and neglectful parents forced him to run away from home, or Beatrice, whose parents were put behind bars when she was younger.
The taut relationship between parental figure and child isn't new to video games—The Last of Us and God of War spring to mind as recent examples—but it's unique for the story of neglect to be told from the child's perspective. It's not unusual for the stories of parents and children to be told from the adult's perspective since the vast majority of popular media is consumed by adults, so it's nice for Concrete Genie to flip the perspective. I really like Concrete Genie going for a new approach to a well-trodden path, but I wish it had something new to say about the parent-child relationship aside from changing the perspective.
Concrete Genie feels like a game that was destined to have been released years ago, when player-creation games at large were just bursting onto the scene. Still, it's brimming with charm and personality, largely through the colors and the welcoming attitude of the Genies themselves, even if they are pretty one-dimensional in their attitudes. Charm can only get you so far, however, as the repetitive and monotonous nature of the game quickly become apparent.
Concrete Genie has a VR mode. I wasn't able to play it, and it's a separate mode so it's not integral to the experience in any case. If you want to know more, here's a link to Caty's impressions.
Concrete Genie is certainly easy on the eyes and ears, with brilliant colors popping out of the screen and a light, airy score to coaxe life out of your paintings. It even successfully switches around the perspective of a strained parent-child relationship compared to what we've seen in other games. Unfortunately the monotonous nature of everything in between creating Genies, from dodging bullies to dousing Denska with Super Paint, drags it down.