One of the last games of the year is also one of the most beautiful, with a stunning indie platformer that has a surprising emotional core.
Video games that look better than they play have been commonplace since the very beginnings of the medium. Usually you associate them with expensive but vapid blockbusters, but theres a certain strain of indie game that has always valued visuals above everything else. Theyre often story-based and so combined with a reasonable price tag theyre usually tolerated… and often lauded. Which response you have to GRIS will depend very much on what you expect going into it.
GRIS is such an exceptionally beautiful game, with an ambitious emotional message, that you want to forgive it everything. The artwork looks ripped from the pages of a French comic book and is combined with glorious hand-drawn animation, subtle watercolours, and an interactive soundtrack that mirrors every in-game event perfectly. It is one of the best-looking games of the year, but the question is whether it has the gameplay to match – and if not, whether the storytelling can compensate.
The game casts you as a young woman named Gris, after the Spanish word for grey (developer Nomada Studio are from Spain). Theres no dialogue or explanation for what is going on at the beginning of the game but its obvious that Gris has recently suffered some great hardship in her life and its initially implied that the world youre exploring is a dream-like internalisation of that. One you must help her conquer as she tries to return colour to the ruined, grey landscapes.
GRIS is what you might call a Metroidvania lite. Its a 2D scrolling platformer where at first your only ability is to jump. Gris has imagined herself with a magic dress that gives her impressive jumping abilities and which, like a true Metroidvania, she can upgrade with extra powers such as the ability to smash through barriers. Theres very little backtracking though and the game is organised into stages, rather than a single open world, so while you can go off piste to search for additional collectables the mainline through the game is very linear.
The more you explore the more you get an inkling of what is troubling Gris, although itd be wrong to suggest the game has anything like a traditional story or plot – since its all very much left up to the players imagination. The background statutes and architecture, and even the gameplay itself, are rich with metaphor, as Gris starts off the game almost immobile but gradually becomes more athletic and more able to navigate and conquer the landscape around her.
The game owes a very clear debt to thatgamecompanys Journey, even borrowing some of its same set pieces to recreate in 2D. The runtime is also similar, at three to four hours, but GRIS does have more traditional gameplay elements, including boss battles and some slightly more complex platforming and puzzle-solving.
But this is where one of the games key mistakes are made, as although its more of a game than you might expect its not nearly challenging enough for any of it to feel satisfying. It quickly begins to fall between two stools, where the gameplay is not interesting enough to add to the experience but not quite trivial enough to just take in your stride.
Mechanically, GRIS is actually very good, with a particularly satisfying double jump, but the level design suffers as it becomes very difficult to work out what parts of the backgrounds are interactive and which are not. Too often you become stuck, not because you couldnt make a jump or figure out a puzzle, but because you never realised that something was actually a platform or that that those rocks were part of the foreground and not the background.
Its a very mundane problem but one that chips away at your patience and willingness to forgive the simplistic level design and lack of meaningful agency. Despite the games short running time it still somehow feels too long, even as it manages to introduce a trickle of new abilities and set pieces.
Its frustrating because the game does seem to achieve most of what it sets out to, as you watch Gris slowly grow in confidence and power until shes able to master every element of the environment. Exactly whats going on isnt important because the games about the experience of being heartbroken, not the reasons for it. That makes it almost impossible not to empathise with Gris and to read your own life experiences into her ambiguous dream world.
But as clever as all the interactive metaphor is the game itself is simplistic and often slightly dull. That still evens out to a game that is well worth experiencing if youre aware of the limitations, but theres a balancing act here – between the presentation and the gameplay – that Nomada hasnt got quite right. But with GRIS theyve marked themselves out as one of the key indie talents to watch in the future and we cant wait to see what they do next.
In Short: A stunning visual achievement and a mediocre Metroidvania but despite that unevenness this is still an affecting interactive journey with real emotional resonance.
Pros: Astonishing presentation with beautiful graphics and excellent sound design. The ambiguous storytelling may frustrate some but paints a subtle picture of grief and recovery.
Cons: The level and puzzle design is simplistic and frequently rather dull. Art design often interferes with your ability to read the position of objects on screen.
Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PC
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Nomada Studio
Release Date: 13th December 2018
Age Rating: 3