20th Aug2019

‘Gris’ Review (iOS)

by Rupert Harvey

GRIS-Screen-2

As the world crumbles, Gris loses her singing voice. She falls into a colourless void. Then she decides to rebuild, bringing light and colour and music back into existence… Gris is the debut game from Barcelona-based developers Nomada Studio. The distinctive visuals, which sell themselves in trailers and videos, were crafted by artist Conrad Roset. The Vangelis-esque music is from Spanish band Berlinist, and is sometimes stirring but more often maudlin, kind of like the game in general.

It’s an austere puzzle platformer, with a simple premise and simpler systems. Gris jumps, double-jumps, and eventually super-jumps; and she can use her magical dress to become a big heavy block that can stomp loose stone. Her quest is to rebuild (and repaint) her castle and an accompanying statue of a woman. Perhaps the woman is her. Perhaps it’s all of womankind.

Progression involves collecting tiny orbs, like pinprick stars from a night sky, which are used for unlocking new sections. There are also mini-constellation type orbs which represent rarer collectibles – the game’s one tangible effort at replayability. Starting with a monochrome, pencil-sketched world, each sub-realm culminates in unlocking a colour. These are the game’s peak moments: as you stand in the palm of a giant hand, the screen bleeds with a new tint, like watercolour spilled on canvas. Gris’s aesthetic is truly lovely at times.

With its bold yet enticing visual style, an obvious touchpoint is Thatgamecompany’s Journey. In pacing terms, it’s in the stately tradition of Rime. I also recognise overtones of Hyper Light Drifter in the way the clueless player gradually learns the rules of this otherworldly place through mystical hieroglyphic runes. Finally, there are shades of Child of Light and Dust in the game’s hand-painted style, although players should expect none of the sophisticated systems of the former or the thunderous combat of the latter. Because there is no combat in Gris. Or, indeed, any conflict at all. No deaths or checkpoints or game over screens. There are no monsters and no significant threats. A raven might blow you back a bit. A puzzle may stall you for a few minutes. One “boss” involves a huge eel chasing you through underwater tunnels, and I discovered that I could completely let go of the controls and let it play out like a cutscene.

In a world without combat, your greatest enemies are getting stuck (fine) or having to backtrack (not fine). Thankfully the latter tends to be a rare problem owing to ingenious, intuitive map design which means it’s almost always clear where you’re meant to go next. Your progress from the hub world – that castle you’re bringing back to fruition – is basically colour-coded.

There is undeniable pleasure in watching Gris’s delicate world come alive: unfurling, unravelling, unsheathing, unfolding. The later levels in particular, where fireflies illuminate platforms and you’re flitting back and forth with an upside-down world, is fabulously intricate. And any game where the underwater sections are the amongst the most fun must be applauded. Back on land, the platforming is sometimes flawed by some arbitrary rules around which surfaces are solid and which are not. I guess art comes at a cost.

The game is sickly cute at times, especially when you reach the forest level, and the violins begin their plaintive whine, and a little creature squeaks adorably and nibbles apples to their core. The same creature provides a neat gameplay idea: he’ll learn to love you, and copy all your actions exactly. Sadly, this conceit is used for a couple of minutes then dispensed with. Gris doesn’t often run with its best ideas. It’s not like it hasn’t the space for those ideas – it is, after all, remarkably brief. Three hours is especially short when you consider that maybe a third of that is spent simply bounding passively through the world. Minutes can pass with much loveliness but without much incident.

I sense that Gris will be an all-time favourite for a small handful of people, but will disappoint a great many more. Perhaps that in itself is a cause for celebration – at the very least, for all its many flaws and for all its brevity, it does provide a splash of colour in the grey gaming landscape.

Gris is out now on iOS priced £4.99 / $4.99. Buy it now on the App Store.

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