Concrete Genie is a brief, heartwarming adventure with lots of magical painting

Missed Messages is a powerful romance / horror game about communicating

Shorter games are often able to tackle themes and ideas that would be more challenging in a big, blockbuster production. That’s one of the main reasons I decided to start this column: to highlight those smaller experiences that offer something new, inventive, or experimental. Missed Messages, from solo developer Angela He, is the perfect encapsulation of this.

You probably haven’t seen a genie like the ones in Concrete Genie, a heartwarming adventure game that just launched on the PS4. The creatures aren’t all-powerful beings that pop out of lamps, and they don’t grant any wishes. Instead, they’re decidedly more down to earth, with the look of a hand-scrawled monster ripped out of a child’s notebook. They aren’t just different; they’re also representative of the game as a whole: Concrete Genie is simple and rough around the edges, but with enough heart to fill the few short hours it lasts.

Concrete Genie is a game about painting. You play as a young boy named Ash, a budding artist who is also subjected to a constant stream of bullying. When his tormenters steal his sketchbook and scatter his work, Ash sets off to find the pages littered throughout a rundown part of town called Denska. While searching, he discovers a magical being — one of the titular genies — called Luna, who just so happens to be a living version of one of his sketches. Ash also gets a giant paintbrush he can use to paint iridescent graffiti.

A game about painting

While most games have a single driving force, in Concrete Genie, there are several. While Ash is searching for his lost sketchbook pages, Luna also tasks him with bringing the dreary Denska to life through his paintings. These two goals are intertwined: as Ash rediscovers his art, it gives him more options for sprucing up the town. That includes bringing new genies to life, each with their own distinct magical abilities. At the same time, Ash has to avoid his bullies, who are frustratingly persistent in following him around.

It sounds complex, but essentially, you enter an area — whether it’s an old lighthouse or an abandoned wharf — and make your way through it while finding all of the spots that need to be painted. Sometimes, this means simple Assassin’s Creed-style climbing around on buildings; other times, it’s light stealth play as you avoid the bullies. For the most part, though, Concrete Genie is made up of environmental puzzles as you help the genies — who can only live on walls — get through the level to help you get past particular obstacles. Some genies can push things out of your way, while others can light things on fire (in a good, helpful way).

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There’s just enough charm and warmth to make it worth the brief journey

It’s all fairly simple, but you jump around between playstyles so much that the simplicity never really feels grating. And all of these elements are punctuated by the painting, which is really the highlight of the experience. Concrete Genie is probably the only game I’ve played this year that uses the DualShock controller’s gyro controls: in order to paint, you move the entire controller around, guiding Ash’s brush. It works well enough, particularly because you don’t have to be accurate at all. Even if you just toss some luminescent pine trees and butterflies up on a wall, it’s going to look good. The best part is that when you meet a new genie, you actually get to design them yourself, using Ash’s painting skills to craft a monster. It lends them an extra layer of handmade charm.

Concrete Genie is messy, much like the adolescent story it tells. The storytelling can be a bit too on the nose — like graffiti calling Ash “the paint nerd” — and the controls can be strangely complex at times, particularly in the last chapter when the game gets more action-heavy. But ultimately, it has just enough charm and warmth to make it worth the brief journey. They might not look like the genies you’re expecting, but that’s part of what makes them so memorable.

Concrete Genie is available now on the PS4.

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