Indie Game of the Week 204: Gris

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Back when I reviewed the satirical Lair of the Clockwork God for a GOTY feature last year, I mentioned that no-one was really making the sort of pretty, poignant, largely subtext-driven puzzle-platformers that it was trying to mock. Turns out I forgot about Nomada Studio's Gris ("Gray," but you knew that) from 2018: every bit the emotional and aesthetically-stunning puzzle-platformer its Indie forebears (e.g. Braid, Hue, Journey, or Bound) were. Dropped into a mysterious world devoid of color, the eponymous protagonist makes her way across natural landscapes and ruined structures in a quest to bring those colors back, each time earning some new ability along the way. The game hints at some greater tragedy that had occurred by way of a series of statues of a forlorn woman with long hair; the implication being that this person was close to the heroine and has perhaps since passed away, which is maybe also why the world has suddenly lost its vibrancy.

Gris is a game where the presentation takes top billing: it's absolutely gorgeous, thanks to a combination of hand-drawn character sprites, stylistic backgrounds that involve a lot of simple shapes and patterns, incredible use of color as each new hue is introduced to a parched world after each of the game's "chapters," and a soulful soundtrack that swells at every significant moment and disappears when there's nothing much happening. It's also the type of game that, owing to its narrative direction, says very little: this isn't often a problem, but it won't surface much about gameplay mechanics or hidden collectibles and leaves you to figure out how both work on your own. It's not that complex a game, fortunately, and additions like a double-jump or diving through water are self-explanatory. (The powers of the "heavy" power-up, which turns the protagonist into a weighty cube, requires a little more experimentation to appreciate however.) The controls are buttery smooth, with the protagonist moving with a gliding motion that visually corroborates that sleekness, and the impressionist visuals never obfuscate where you need to go or what you can interact with (though the last area of the game can be a little too open for its own good).

Restoring the color blue to the world. Game felt pretty
Restoring the color blue to the world. Game felt pretty "blue" already, if I'm being honest.

I think Gris is an impressive game, both in its artistic aspirations and in its mechanical fundamentals, though it's also the sort of simplified experience that doesn't require a whole lot of explanation by way of a review. I could try to approach the themes and drama of the story it only tells through emotions rather than words, but seeing how it's all delivered by the visuals and music it's honestly something best appreciated by playing the game directly. The various set-pieces are all dramatic twists - and I'd rather not rob them of their surprise by discussing them - or are based around a set of newly introduced puzzle-platforming mechanics that are deliberately easy to fathom. The fresh bursts of color after every stage, the way each chapter's world appears to wrap around back to the hub, the quiet times where you're just strolling along a bridge or an empty expanse of desert; they're the sort of moments that fit the ebb and flow of the game overall without necessarily standing out much on their own. It's like trying to pick a single track off a concept album to highlight: if it works at all it's because it's part of a whole.

Naturally, you've probably seen enough games of this type that you'll know instinctively if it's something you want to try out. While the gameplay is highly competent in its construction and execution it's also nothing we've not seen many times before, and its swings at poignancy and emotional depth could have you rolling your eyes as easily as bawling from them, depending on the type of player you are or the mood you're currently in. If you're the type who loved Journey and considered it Game of the Year material, Gris is definitely on your wavelength; likewise, if you felt Journey was overwrought and uneventfully dull and was unable to see what everyone else saw in it, Gris isn't going to be the game to suddenly open your eyes. I'll grant you this is perhaps my least insightful IGotW review yet, but sometimes you can learn all you need to about a game just by watching a trailer or some gameplay footage; given how much the audio-visual language is integral to Gris and how straightforward everything else is, that's more the case here than ever.

A
A "tree" in a "lake". Feels like I accidentally screencapped a Where's Waldo? picture: where did Gris go?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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