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‘Concrete Genie’ Is Charming, but Incomplete

There’s a lot of charming bits in “Concrete Genie” that aren’t quite coming together yet.

The premise is there, and it’s got a good hook: players assume the role of Ash, a young boy obsessed with art and harassed by bullies. Through a series of events he learns of a strange darkness plaguing his home, and only with the help of the magical “Concrete Genies” he can summon with a magical paintbrush will he be able to save his world.

“Concrete Genie’s” basic setup has you navigating as Ash through sidestreets and alleys of the city Deska, avoiding his tormentors by running and even jumping and climbing up to rooftops. This is all fairly predictable platformer stuff, albeit without much in the way of mechanical sophistication. You won’t be making fancy jumps by the skin of your teeth, in all likelihood – that’s just not what this game seems to be about based on this E3 demo.

The Genies themselves practically hug you through the screen as they ask for specific painted accessories, like grass, or fire, or an apple. And there’s an oddly personal kind of connection to them, since you, as Ash, must paint them to bring them to life. This is done by selecting from a variety of, well, Genie-part templates and painting them on the appropriate surface. There’s different antlers, and tails, which go a long way toward personalizing the Genie, and the way in which the game allows you to construct them is novel.

The problem is that it doesn’t work particularly well right now. Many of the Genies populate their respective wall in such a way that drawing antlers on them pointing upward will, in fact, flip once the Genie comes to life, leaving something that looks more like wacky mutant tusks than impressive head ornaments.

This isn’t a huge issue. In fact, it’s kind of funny. But it does feel indicative of a disconnect between “Concrete Genie’s” parts. The bullies Ash is attempting to avoid wander specific parts of the level, but they never felt like a particular threat, save for when the game’s camera didn’t behave, which, unfortunately, was often.

The latter issue may be related in some way to the off-putting mix of traditional analog controls and the reliance on gyroscopic motions of the controller to “paint” with Ash’s magic brush. This doesn’t feel great, currently, and developer Pixelopus seems to know it — the control prompts and hints explicitly inform players that they can recalibrate/recenter the Dualshock 4’s gyroscope by hitting the Option button.

But the finicky controls were less of an issue than basic level design problems. The level in this E3 demo was divided into three areas, each of which was gated in a pair of ways. To get to the next section, a specific physical barrier needed to be cleared away using a Genie’s abilities, which required clearing painting a way toward the barrier in question. Once that barrier is cleared, the next space is open, but: to clear a section, all darkness must be cleared, which can only be done with magic paint granted by a genie, and … I’m not totally sure.

I was somewhat confused as to what the progression demands are in “Concrete Genie” despite a helpful representative from Pixelopus trying to lend assistance. It seemed like, in addition to darkness areas needing to be painted over, strings of lights around the level also needed to be lit, which is also achieved by painting over them. The problem here is I just couldn’t seem to find all of them, despite repeatedly consulting the map.

The even bigger issue is holistic – as suggested before, the various parts of “Concrete Genie,” despite their individual charms, aren’t coming together yet. Thankfully, there’s still time, as no release date was indicated for Ash’s adventure at E3.

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