Title: Concrete Genie
Developer: Pixelopus | Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment | Initial Release: 8th October 2019
In an industry that continues to find mass appeal in competitive shooters and annual sports games, it is always pleasing to see a title that fully embraces the artistry of video games and this is precisely where Concrete Genie excels. The latest game from developers Pixelopus, creators of the similarly beautiful Entwined, follows the story of an aspiring street artist named Ash as he quite literally brings light and life back to the abandoned streets of his former home town of Denska. In storybook fashion, this is done with the help of a magical paintbrush that enables Ash to express his imagination on the town's walls through "Living Paint", bringing whole scenes and characters (Genies) to life along his journey through the semi-open world. Of course this journey is not without barriers; a mysterious darkness serves as a metaphor for the stifling of creativity by obscuring certain walls and areas, while a gang of bullies, with very little interest in art, now boss the place. Indeed, it is an early encounter with this gang that sees Ash's sketch book torn up, leaving you with the task of recovering the lost pages and ideas but this is one collectable hunt that is well worth the effort.
it is hard to think of a game that would better justify the inclusion of a photo mode
Every recovered sketch page adds new design elements to your painting menu, something reminiscent of LittleBigPlanet's "popit" system, and enables you to cover walls with everything from butterflies and rainbows to mountains and icebergs with simple use of the DualShock 4's motion control. As well as wall art designs, you'll also collect Genie parts and personalities with which to create your own, customised buddies who will spend just as much time playfully interacting with you and your art as they do helping you progress through the game. With creation tools that are a cinch to use, even the least skilled artist can transform a dour backstreet into a vibrant and beautiful piece of artwork in no time and it is hard to think of a game that would better justify the inclusion of a photo mode to capture the player's efforts.
Key Photo Mode Features:
Free camera movement
Accessible editing tools
Controls & Implementation:
Much like how the game itself is designed to make creative freedom easy and accessible for any type of player, the photo mode included by Pixelopus offers a similarly generous yet not overly complicated set of tools that will make photographing the art you create, as well as the environments you transform throughout the relatively short story, just as straightforward. By simultaneously clicking L3 & R3, the photo mode is conveniently reached at almost any time during the game, I say almost because it is unfortunately disabled during certain set pieces. This is understandable in cut-scenes but does mean that some of the entertaining actions of the Genies remain tantalisingly out of the photo mode's grasp.
I can't help but feel that it would be more natural to function as though rolling a camera in your hands
Once activated, the Concrete Genie photo mode is split into two distinct modes; a self-explanatory Camera Control mode for shot composition, and an Edit Mode for processing your image to achieve a desired look. A simple and unobtrusive display provides a control legend and menu settings across the bottom of the screen and is conveniently hidden with a single press of the Δ button.
Camera movement is completely free within a relatively large bounding sphere, centred around Ash, and sees horizontal truck / dolly movement operated using the LS while the D-pad duplicates the side-to-side truck but this time pairing it with a vertical crane adjustment. A full 360° of pan and 180° of tilt around a central pivot point are provided by the RS to allow the camera to be pointed in any direction, including vertically straight up or down, and a broad range of zoom via L2 / R2 ensures that it's just easy as to capture wide angled views as it is much tighter shots of the world and its magical inhabitants.
The final camera movement is roll, labelled as tilt in the game, which again operates with a full 360° range using L1 / R1, but this is perhaps where a little confusion creeps in. Controller inputs roll the actual image as you see it on the screen, L1 for CCW and R1 for CW rotation; this is hardly a difficult concept to understand but I can't help but feel that it would be more natural to function as though rolling a camera in your hands as opposed to the world inside the viewfinder. This is perhaps a matter of personal preference, akin to the age-old debate over inverted y-axis, but the mismatch between whether the controls are operating a camera or the image are compounded by the fact that all lateral movements (truck, dolly & crane) remain relative to your position as a photographer holding a camera while the rotational controls move with the orientation of the game environment itself. In short, this leads to an uncomfortable conflict in the movement controls when using a degree of camera roll or shooting in portrait mode.
a sense of post-processing control that is able to achieve a broad range of styles
Somewhere that has no such confusion is the Edit Mode, switching to it with a press of the touchpad locks the camera in place and adds one of ten edit options to the on screen display along with the control legend. Navigated and adjusted with the D-pad, each option offers a numerical scale from 0 - 100 and, although making no attempt to align with the values of real world camera settings, the available tools provide plenty of photographical creativity without adding the weight of understanding more complex terminology.
Leading the way are colour temperature, for shifting the overall colour tones from cool blue to warm orange; colour saturation, ranging from bright and vivid to monochromatic black and white; and contrast, which strongly influences the black levels. These three complimentary settings combine well to give a sense of post-processing control that is able to achieve a broad range of styles on any shot but the one other option that you would perhaps expect here, exposure, is unfortunately missing. This is especially surprising given that the game options do include a brightness setting with the same 0 - 100 scale and, although this can be used to influence your captured images, it cannot be accessed while inside the photo mode.
lend a realistic feel to otherwise fantastical shots
Other than this small oversight, the rest of the edit mode goes on to give a great set of options that imitate the affectations of real world camera hardware and lend a realistic feel to otherwise fantastical shots. Authentic vignette and film grain effects can be applied with varying amounts while a simplified depth of field option lets you easily add a de-focused region and pleasing bokeh to the background or foreground by simply deciding how deep into the scene the point of focus should be. Should you want to give the Living Paint more of an otherworldly glow, the lens flare and bloom options combine excellently to give hexagonal artefacts and produce an outward spread of bright light sources into nearby pixels. Rounding off the camera effects is chromatic aberration, the phenomenon responsible for colour fringing that photographers typically try to eliminate. Here though, the effect can be implemented to an extreme level by completely offsetting the RGB colour channels for a highly stylised look.
The more observant amongst you may have noticed that the above only covers nine of the touted ten editing options and that's because the final one is part of what may be Concrete Genie's party piece. In a stroke of "Genie-us", Pixelopus have ensured that every stroke of every piece of art you create throughout the entire game can be undone and reset or even replayed while in photo mode at a speed determined by that final edit mode setting. By pressing ☐, the currently visible wall will be wiped and each painted element returned in the precise order you created them. Beyond mere photographic opportunity, this wonderful feature is a delight for anyone interesting in creating beautiful gifs and, with a little forward planning, could be combined with a slow camera pan to create stunning time-lapse videos that even David Attenborough's production team would be proud of!
Of course great photography is not only about joy and colour so it is good news that the early stages of the game provide some excellent opportunities to capture the depression of an abandoned town and the hostile mood of its unruly inhabitants. Much like the story arc of the game, this dark and gritty domain is gradually replaced with an altogether more enlightened vibe as Ash's imagination and kindness become more manifested in reality, but it's entirely possible to give the bullies the runaround and wipe your paintings clean should you want to spend more time like this.
this dark and gritty domain is gradually replaced with an altogether more enlightened vibe
It goes without saying though, that you'll want to do much more than that; in a game which so openly embraces creativity, you will likely find yourself filling the streets with far more elaborate creations than are technically asked of you, especially with a little encouragement from the Genies who are never too shy to give their thoughts on which designs should adorn a particular wall. Even if you do get bored of painting, the Genies themselves make great subjects. With a whole host of different personalities and situational interactions with you and the living elements of your paintings, it is a joy to watch and photograph these characterful creatures. Naturally, the more your create, the more you'll have to photograph and, as the world fills with colour and light, it is worth paying particular attention to the excellent implementation of screen space reflections. These not only make for some stunning virtual photographs incorporating Denska's predominantly wet surfaces but are a neat reminder that Concrete Genie is as technically sound as it is creatively gifted.
Given that games like this still don't come along all that often, it can be especially pleasing to the artistically minded player community when they do. Although Concrete Genie's photo mode may lack some of the real world camera terminology that people are becoming used to in other games and provides no preset filters or aspect ratio crops to make quick use of, this is more than made up for with a strong creative ethos. By articulately conveying the message that art should not be stifled, both the game and its virtual photography features are carefully crafted with clever accessibility. Concrete Genie has one of the easiest, fully featured photo modes to get to grips with but also one that gives the player a lot of control over what is actually available to photograph.
[ Concrete Genie reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro using a retail copy ]
Full Feature Set:
Photo Mode Access: L3 & R3
Camera Movement: Free (with bounding sphere)
Temperature: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Saturation: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Contrast (black level): 0 - 100 (± 1)
Vignette: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Film Grain: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Chromatic Aberration: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Bloom: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Lens Flare: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Depth of Field: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Replay Speed: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Start Replay: Replay sequence of wall paintings
Hide UI: Yes
Hide Character: No