One of the challenges for indie games is finding a way to stand out amongst an endless sea of games. It’s easy for a single game to get lost in the shuffle. GRIS doesn’t have this problem, because from the moment you lay eyes on it, you can’t help but be captivated by its beauty. While I hadn’t picked it up when it first came out, my brief glimpses of GRIS’ alluring artwork left a lasting impression, and the game stayed in the back of my mind as something I knew I had to try. So recently, as I was looking for another game to cover, I remembered this intriguing little title and finally took the plunge. I had to know: beyond its initial positive impression, what does GRIS have to offer?
GRIS’ story centers around heavy concepts like loss and grief, and small children might find a couple tense moments to be scary. Otherwise, however, the game is remarkably family-friendly. There is no foul language—there are no words at all, actually—no blood or gore, and no nudity or risqué clothing.
The game begins with a cutscene in which a young woman—Gris, the player character—sings while standing atop a giant stone hand that is cracked in many places. Suddenly the hand crumbles to pieces, and Gris is sent tumbling through the sky to the ground far below. The game provides no immediate meaning to this symbolic event, but when you see Gris again after she has landed, she is clearly distraught by what has just transpired; she’s lost her ability to sing, she can barely muster the will to walk, and attempting to do anything else sends her to her knees. But she soon regains her composure and sets off on a journey to regain her voice and restore the once mighty statue that had held her aloft.
To say any more would spoil the game, because GRIS’ plot doesn’t reveal much of itself until the end of the experience. The game eschews words in favor of telling its story through symbolism and ambiance, an approach that GRIS executes well, though not to its fullest potential. Most of the game’s environments and gameplay elements feel disconnected from the narrative being told; even so, it contains just enough key story beats, primarily centered around the concept of color as well as the giant statue, to share what it needs to with the player. While I wasn’t blown away by the game’s story when it was all said and done, I was nonetheless touched by its poignant tale of loss, grief, and healing, and impressed by how it is portrayed entirely through its audio/visual presentation.
Speaking of presentation, GRIS’ most impressive elements, by far, are its sounds and sights, besting countless AAA games made with vast, multimillion-dollar budgets and more advanced technology. The game mixes hand-drawn and watercolor elements to create a playful, imaginative aesthetic that the developers used to create some truly stunning visuals. The rich color palette pops from start to finish, and the fluid animations bring life not only to the game’s characters, but also to its surreal landscapes and structures. A wonderfully atmospheric soundtrack accompanies this gorgeous artwork, bathing the experience with serene, ambient tunes, while punctuating a few select moments with swelling orchestral tracks.
Gameplay consists of platforming and a smattering of light puzzles. Each section of the game introduces a new game mechanic—such as transforming your dress into a heavy block—and then presents an obstacle which requires you to make use of that mechanic—like changing into block form to avoid being blown back by heavy winds. Most abilities gained in one area are rarely used in subsequent stages; the game prefers to move on and focus on new abilities. This design has both positives and negatives. On the one hand, the variation in focus ensures that the game never feels stale, and that there’s always something interesting to look forward to as you progress throughout the game. On the other hand, it also means that your abilities rarely synergize with each other. One of the things I enjoy most about platformers is using multiple abilities in concert with one another, mastering a suite of moves in order to complete bigger challenges throughout the course of a game. GRIS’ short runtime means that you don’t learn many different moves overall, and the game doesn’t present you with a situation requiring you to show off how well you can use all your abilities.
The closest thing to any real challenge in this game involves finding Mementos, floating circles scattered throughout each stage. These optional objectives are tucked away a little off the beaten path, and reaching them often involves solving a physics-based platforming puzzle. You do have to keep your eyes peeled if you want to find them all, as many of them can easily be missed if you aren’t paying attention. These inject needed gameplay depth in an otherwise linear and straightforward progression. It is annoying that, while you are still progressing through the story, you cannot go back to completed stages and search for Mementos that you missed. Thankfully, you do gain access to a chapter select after completing the game.
At specific points in the game you encounter a large, black, goopy being that serves as the primary antagonist in GRIS. This entity will transform itself into different shapes and attempt to impede your progress, acting like a pseudo-boss. Your encounters with it sometimes involve gameplay and other times are purely cinematic, but in each instance, the tension it produces is well-timed and helps add variety to the overall soothing and laid-back experience.
All told, GRIS is a great little game, drawing you in with its gorgeous aesthetic and keeping you engaged through a variety of little gameplay twists. While I wish the gameplay contained more complexity as a whole, I think the decision to keep it relatively simple dovetails well with the serene, mesmerizing feel of the rest of the experience. Whether you’re seeking out the finest gems that the creative indie scene has to offer, or just looking for a bite-sized game to entertain you during a bit of free time, you should definitely pick this game up.
The Bottom Line
Gris' stunningly beautiful presentation, poignant story, and fluid platforming come together to create an impressive indie title that shouldn't be missed.