**Review copy provided by publisher**
GRIS is one of the best looking games I’ve ever played. It’s a watercolor painting come to life. We no longer need to debate whether a video game can be art; GRIS shows us that art can be a video game. Whether it’s at the start when the world is black and white except for the main character’s blue hair, or when the environment is filled with luscious reds, yellows, blues, and greens, GRIS always looks phenomenal. Imagine a watercolor painting in an art gallery, except at this art gallery, the paintings come to life after hours. Night at the Art Gallery, if you like.
Adrian Cuevas at Nomada Studios cites Journey as a big inspiration for GRIS, and given that he’s invited the comparison, I might as well discuss it. GRIS is the game you’d get if Journey were a 2D light puzzle platformer without the potential for drop-in co-op. For reference, I thought Journey was phenomenal and I’ve not had an experience like it in the years since. I still haven’t, however GRIS came damn close.
You play as a young woman called Gris (gray in Spanish). Gris is singing on the hand of a large stone statue when she mysteriously loses her voice. The statue crumbles, sending her tumbling down to the black and white world below.
GRIS’s three-hour story sees Gris restoring color to the world and seeking to reclaim what she has lost. What little story there is here is open to interpretation. I’m fairly confident in saying the story is about dealing with loss, but I wouldn’t want to go beyond that with any certainty. Different people will take different things from the experience. I see the story being about overcoming a tragedy so bad that it destroys you as a person leaving you to slowly rebuild yourself from within until you’re back to how you were before, or as close as you’ll ever get.
When you’re at your lowest, the world looks like a dark place and you feel incapable of doing anything, unable to contribute. Everything is a struggle. As you work through your problems, you begin to see the color that was in the world all along, you overcome more and more complex tasks, and eventually, you might become the person you once were.
Unlike in real life, GRIS doesn’t make this rebuilding process especially challenging, although according to Cuevas that’s entirely deliberate. He wanted GRIS to be a relaxing and serene experience and he absolutely succeeded. The entire game is built around letting you reach an almost trance-like state as you play. The music is so soft you almost forget it’s there. It’s a collection of soft sounds like those people use as background noise to get to sleep, to help them focus during work, or even for meditation.
Your goal is to collect all the stars from each chapter—generally, there’s around four or five—which you then set free in the sky to create a constellation which builds as you progress. The stars are also used to unlock a handful of new abilities and to gradually return color to the world. Each chapter has the same loop. You find some stars, use those stars to unlock an ability, use the ability to find the rest of the stars, release a new color into the world, and then set the stars free in the sky.
The abilities are technically part of Gris’ dress, not Gris herself, although it’s often hard to notice the distinction. Her dress can become heavy enough to stop her getting blown away by the wind, give her a double jump and a glide, or help her swim. These abilities increase the complexity of later puzzles slightly, although each chapter tends to focus on one specific theme and ability so it rarely gets especially confusing.
The puzzles strike a good balance between never being challenging enough to frustrate you or take you out of the moment, but not being so dull that you simply just push forward on an analog stick and drift off to sleep. In addition to light platforming, you will need to manipulate the environment to reach new areas or seek the assistance of a small friend to knock down obstacles in your path.
The levels are also designed to minimize frustration and stop you ever getting stressed. Stretched end to end, the world of GRIS is huge. If this were a painting, it’s the type you might find on the ceiling of a chapel. However, GRIS never lets you get lost or wander too far from the desired path. There are regular points of no return and obstacles block your path if you take a wrong turn. Even the optional collectibles tend to be on the main path and easily visible. The challenge is generally reaching them, not exploring to find them.
GRIS attempts to up the stakes with a few moments of perceived danger or what you might generously call boss battles, however you can’t die so these moments are just further puzzles or in one case a barely interactive cutscene. There’s clearly a thematic meaning to the black shadow that pops up to block your progress on occasion, however it didn’t add anything to the experience for me.
Other small touches were more impactful, such as the creature who follows you but always ducks his head down whenever you turn around and try to make eye contact. His behavior subtly changes as you earn his trust and it’s a shame he didn’t stick around longer.
Earlier, I said GRIS didn’t have quite the impact of Journey. I’m not convinced games like Journey and GRIS benefit from deep dives into their mechanics as that seems to be missing the point. There’s probably no definitive reason Journey was the more powerful experience for me. It’s not as simple as Journey having an optional co-op mode of sorts. My experience with Journey was shared with another random player, however plenty of people have played solo and had similarly intense experiences.
For me, the distinction comes down to GRIS’ slightly increased reliance on typical video game moments such as the platforming puzzles and abilities. GRIS is in no way a metroidvania—not under my definition—but I wouldn’t be surprised to see people describing it as such. Moves like the double jump and ground pound are staples of the genre, and learning to swim crops up quite a lot as well. The more I played GRIS, the more I remembered I was playing a video game and not just going on a journey, if you’ll excuse the pun.
Or maybe I’m reading way too much into it. Perhaps I was in a more emotional state when I played Journey and that brought out the feels. Or I’d had too many cups of tea when I played GRIS. Or simply Journey came first. Not having the same impact as Journey should not be seen as a huge flaw. Journey was close to a masterpiece. GRIS is an incredibly good game. I played in one three-hour sitting and genuinely felt better afterward.
GRIS is a relaxing experience and a visually stunning one. Much like any piece of art, what you make of it is going to be intensely personal, however I suspect that if you’ve enjoyed games such as Flower and Journey, you will also get something out of GRIS.
GRIS is also available on the Switch and I have to assume it will come to other consoles at some point as well. GRIS is $17 on release which is going to be a little much for some people given that it is a relatively short experience. I don’t generally take price into account in reviews unless it’s particularly egregious so I’ll leave you to decide whether you can afford to jump in at full price for a short experience. Given how beautiful GRIS looks, there can be absolutely no doubting the effort put into the final product. The way I look at it, far worse paintings have sold for a lot more than $17.