GRIS review: walking through a watercolour

Throughout the game you’ll also get blue and eventually yellow, and each time the world is transformed to introduce new settings, taking you from a rusty city in the sky to a vibrant overgrown forest to an underwater labyrinth.

Progression within video games usually doesn’t extend to the ambience like this, so I was willing to accept that other elements of the game feel comparatively underdeveloped. New elements and abilities are introduced, meaning the puzzles and platforming can get a bit more complicated, but the visuals (and sweeping, expressive accompanying sound) are always the main draw.

With new colours come new settings and styles.

With new colours come new settings and styles.

Narratively this is an ambiguous game with no text or dialogue, but the world is filled with connotations from the broken human forms of the ever-present statues to the swirling inky black masses that pursue you. The goal is clearly to restore your voice, but the journey itself seems like it’s about a lot more.

You can’t die or be harmed in the game, but it still manages to pull off some very tense moments. There are even boss battles (of a kind), in which the ink manifests fluidly into a giant raven or, later, an eel, bent on your destruction. That’s not to say this is a hostile world though. In fact many of the game’s most memorable moments involve strange friends you’ve made along the way lending their strength or coming to the rescue.

The camera constantly moves between close detail and amazing long shots.

The camera constantly moves between close detail and amazing long shots.

It’s tempting to describe GRIS in terms of the games it’s similar to, though doing so means it never quite seems to measure up. For example the gameplay here is clearly allegorical, but it doesn’t come anywhere near the sublime connection of movement and story in Celeste. The deliberate pace, ease of play and linear, evocative presentation bring Journey to mind, yet there’s none of the same emotional gut punch.

But comparisons like these do GRIS a disservice. This is a game with flaws — for example there’s a lot of simple walking and jumping between areas with not much to do — but it isn’t true to say it’s all style and no substance because in many cases the presentation itself says so much.

I love the progression from the crumbly, disconsolate appearance of the early levels to the structured tiers and ruler-drawn lines of the late game, and even when I was just running and jumping there were usually layers of art and aura to take in. In the transition following the underwater level alone I felt as though I was fighting towards the surface of despair, up through epiphany and then straight back down to the depths.

With all that said I was left wanting more. With only four main areas, and even fewer new moves Gris learns along the way, it does feel as though it could be the first few chapters in a larger game. But the symbolism and themes that carry you through do have a satisfying arc, and a brief but memorable experience is far preferable to one that’s unnecessarily bloated or bites off more than it can chew. As it stands this is a powerful and significant game, even if the visual art overshadows the actual play.

GRIS is out now on Switch (reviewed) and PC.

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