Review: GRIS

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This game was selected as our January 2019 Reader’s Choice Review. Learn more on our Patreon page.

I’ve long since lost count of how many games place you within a character’s mind. Some tell you up front what’s going on, some save it for a big reveal, but all of them have to grapple with representing memories, emotions, and the subconscious as places and things you can interact with. It’s not at all a simple thing, but GRIS nails it in a way that not many games do, by communicating the raw feelings that your character experiences. And it doesn’t do this with dialog or cutscenes or text, but with the pure artistry of the game world as presented. The aesthetic of GRIS is its most powerful tool, drawing you into the pain, struggle, and triumph of the titular character with lavish art and fantastic music layered over a simple journey of discovery.

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The young Gris has lost her voice, sending her plunging into a world of shattered ruins and barren vistas. But in this land are places of power where she can reclaim part of her own, gaining new abilities and spreading her own rejuvenating color. Her travels reveal new realms and facets of this place, as well as stars that help her build a path to a final revelation. There is little standing in her way aside from chasms and walls, and all can be overcome with patience and creativity. Gris may also find something else lurking in the dark corners of her world, something tied to her tragedies that must be overcome if she is to move on and free herself from sorrow.

GRIS is not shy about its themes or emotional beats, and it doesn’t have to be because of how it presents them. Right from the opening scenes you’ll be treated to absolutely gorgeous hand-drawn art, showing your character’s fall and first steps in her symbolic lands. You’ll get no explanation of what you’re seeing or doing but you don’t need it, because this is a game that speaks in emotions, through shapes and colors. Climbing wrought-iron frameworks to reach the peak of a massive windmill, leaping across lush trees to shake apples loose for a friend, and diving deep into watery caves to find lost ruins beneath the earth are all experiences that are simple mechanically but resonate because of the striking art and imaginative designs representing them.

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I do want to stress “simple mechanically” because GRIS should not be conflated with more sprawling platformers or metroidvanias. Yes, there is a rich world to explore but your sojourns from the hub area are going to be mostly linear loops, taking you out to distant realms and back to witness the fruits of your progress. Along those paths will be platforming challenges to overcome, gentle ones for the most part, though there is a set of optional collectibles that requires a little more exploration to find. Each area will also grant you a new power, and these tend to be a little more creative than the usual spread of mobility skills. While they won’t be used to open up major side paths or revisit previous locations, experimenting with them as you progress can be quite rewarding.

The main takeaway here is that the platforming and associated mechanics aren’t the main draw. I enjoyed working my way through the broken towers and luminous caves but mainly as an observer, drinking in the sights and sounds. And again, that is the language of GRIS. Your enjoyment of the game is going to come from forging out into the desert to see the great windmills, or discovering the looming ruins and hanging gardens of a lost city. It’s probably not going to come from hopping around those places or solving simple puzzles, but from just being present for the experience. The animated scenes you get when you reach goals or climactic points are a true highlight, featuring incredible hand-drawn art and emotional beats that speak on a very deep and identifiable level.

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GRIS isn’t an amazing game, it’s an amazing experience. I’ve played platformers that were deeper with their mechanics, more engaging with their challenges, or more sprawling in their design, but few have matched the raw beauty of this one. It’s one of the smartest games out there in terms of how it communicates, touching pure emotions instead of narrative constructs. I suppose that could leave some folks seeking more concrete tales out in the cold, but GRIS tells its story in its own way and tells it well. Your journey will last you between three and four hours but it will linger with you far longer, like seeing a painting in a gallery that stays in your mind long after you’ve left the building. Gaming experiences like that are rare, which makes GRIS all the more important to behold.

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