Shock to the Senses
Have you ever come across a piece of art that just immediately strikes you as something special? Something that reminds you of your love for the medium as soon as you lay your eyes on it? That’s the feeling I had immediately after going hands on with the demo of Gris at this year’s PAX West.
You can check out our previous write-up for more details, but to summarize it, the game left me stunned. While the core gameplay itself was on the light side, the artistic presentation (the soundtrack in particular) blew away just about everything else I had the chance to play at the show. Afterwards, I waited with bated breath for the game’s full release, hoping that it would live up to my initial experience.
Now, a few months later, that day has arrived. The release of Gris is upon us, and I’ve now had the opportunity to play through the whole experience. To sum it up quickly, the game delivered everything I was hoping for and a bit more.
…I may have essentially spoiled the review right there. However, I would highly encourage you to read on, as there is definitely more to this game than the initial trailers and demo revealed.
Developed by Nomada Studio and published by Devolver Digital, Gris was released on December 13th, 2018, for the Switch and PC. The PC version was played for this review.
Finding a Connection
The story of Gris isn’t a very obvious one. Being told completely wordlessly and relying heavily on symbolism, this is the kind of game that leaves itself open to interpretation. Official promotion mentions the game being a coming of age story, and I’ve seen other discussion that the game is more about grief and loss.
After my playthough, I can’t agree much with the former, and while there are some elements of the latter that seem apropos, my personal interpretation is that Gris is a story of loss and seeking reconnection, particularly a connection or a relationship with another person.
The game begins with the eponymous Gris suddenly losing her singing voice, with the humanesque statue that she’s resting on immediately crumbling beneath her. In the PAX West demo I played, I had originally interpreted this much more widely, with Gris’ “world” crashing down, but my time with the game brought my focus much more to the statue itself.
Similar statues to the one Gris was standing on mark off the end of each of the game’s levels, and the various environments are filled with similar effigies in varying states of decay. Between these, especially with the statues capping off each stage, the story comes across to me as a search for a lost connection with someone.
There are some other aspects of the game that I feel back this idea up, although discussing them would likely be spoiling the experience too much. I admit my interpretation of the story may be a bit surface-level, but as I mentioned though, Gris seems very open to interpretation. Luckily, it’s not so overly obtuse that it’s impossible to pick a message out of the game.
Journey and Destination
Gris presents itself, gameplay-wise, as a relatively standard platformer. You’ll navigate Gris through various environments, solving light puzzles along the way. The game is divided up into four stages, each following a similar gameplay loop: explore the environment, solve some puzzles to unlock a new mechanic, use the new mechanic to solve more puzzles, possibly “fight” a “boss,” then move to the next stage.
The base controls feel solid, and I never had any trouble navigating through the environments. They become much more fluid as you unlock more mechanics, particularly the ability to swim around the half-way point of the game. The ease of making acrobatic dolphin-like leaps between block of water created some of my favorite moments when it came to the core gameplay.
When Gris was first announced, I saw some immediate rumbles of worry that it would be too focused on its aesthetics and ignore the need for strong gameplay. I can understand the worry, especially with the uprise of relatively gameplay-light artistic titles in the past few years. Hell, I’ll admit, while the PAX West demo did leave a great impression on me, there really wasn’t much to the actual gameplay itself.
Allow me to assuage your fears, as the full release of Gris offers a solid gameplay experience. Those looking for in-depth challenges and deep engines won’t find what they’re looking for, though. This is a rather easy game; some puzzles took me a few minutes to figure out, but otherwise there was hardly a moment where I wasn’t making progress. You can’t truly fail or die, so if you keep playing, you will see the end of the game.
What Gris does offer in gameplay, though, are some rather clever puzzles that mesh well with the artistic aesthetic. Most center around the abilities you unlock in each stage. The first main level grants Gris the ability to turn into a heavy block, and features puzzles revolving around wind, weight, and damaging the environment. As more skills come available, navigation and puzzles become slowly more complex, eventually requiring the use of everything at your disposal at the endgame.
For those who aren’t satisfied by simply running a straight line to completion, each stage has special tokens that you can collect, often requiring solving a more difficult than usual puzzle or navigating some more challenging platforming. Some of these tokens hang out in plain sight to tease you, while others are hidden and require carefully exploring the environment to find. The game’s hub area keeps track of how many tokens you collected and/or missed in each stage, as well. I didn’t manage to collect all of them in any of the stages, so I can’t say for sure if collecting them unlocks anything, but the ones I did find provided some nice little challenges outside of the core game path.
We were told at PAX West that Gris was only intended to be a few hours long, and I can confirm this, as I went from opening cutscene to credits in a little less than four hours. This time includes collecting about half of the aforementioned challenge tokens. The game is set to release at $16.99, which may put off some, but I take no issue with the short run-time here, as the game doesn’t overstay its welcome.
For most, the game’s aesthetic will be the reason to play, and I can confirm that the entire game is just as stunningly beautiful as the various trailers have made it out to be. Gris boasts a striking ink and watercolor art style and some amazingly fluid animation. It may be cliche to say, but this game truly does feel like a painting brought to life.
Even more impressive is just how alive all of the environments feel. There are tons of little details, from tiny creatures that hide when you pass them and poke their heads back out to ensure you’re gone, to the subtle rippling of mushroom-shaped platforms as you jump on them. Each level feels like its own little world, and they were an absolute joy to explore.
If you’ve followed my past reviews in any capacity, you know how much weight I put on music in games. I always feel that it’s one of the most important aspects of a video game, being an audio-visual medium, and doubly so for an “artistic” game like this.
When it comes to Gris…my god, the soundtrack for this game absolutely blew me away. The music here was composed by Berlinist, a group out of Barcelona, and they have crafted what is easily one of the most beautiful soundtracks I have heard this year.
Every track feels meticulously crafted to the environments they’re played in, further enhancing the game’s visuals. There’s a running sense of ethereal unease throughout much of it, often becoming ambient. There’s also a bit of theme and variation going on, with Gris‘ opening track being stripped down and rebuilt throughout the game, eventually building to an emotional climax that, quite honestly, sent chills down my spine. Hell, it may have even evoked a tear or two.
Honestly, for as much as I’ve written here, words can’t do Gris justice. This initial release from an upstart studio has absolutely blown me away. From the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack to the engrossing aesthetic design, combined with solid gameplay that does its part in showing off the world while also not being a slouch itself, Gris is far and away one of the best experiences in gaming I’ve had this year.
For all of the drama and anger that seems to come up often in the industry, games like Gris are a shocking reminder of why I’m still in love with gaming. Games like this are why I still strive to find time between work and day-to-day responsibilities to sit in front of my PC or television and get myself lost in a new experience.
Gris sets a new standard in the relatively young artistic platformer genre, and I am extremely excited to see what Nomada Studio does next. This game is an absolute must-play, and I truly hope that anyone who does will be able to see just how special this title is.
~ Final Score: 10/10 ~
Review copy provided by Devolver Digital for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.