Ever since the early days of the indie scene, there has been pushback against games that were more artistically-inclined and a slow-paced. Many enjoy these games and praise their artistic depth, while others mock them for their lack of gameplay and challenge. Gris won’t sit well with everyone, but I found it a wonderful experience that should be able to meet these detractors somewhere in the middle.
The power of Gris lies primarily in its art, as it opens on a singing woman standing atop a statue, until that statue begins to crumble and she plummets for an eternity, eventually arriving in a plain world without colors and filled with abandoned ruins.
It’s a beautiful game in every respect, with particular mention going to the fantastic character design both in gameplay and in cutscenes, the wonderful animations put into the protagonist and the world around her, and the vistas you see in the background which grow more elaborate as more color returns to the world as you progress the game’s storyline. The soundtrack is also pleasant with the scenes where the protagonist sings being particularly memorable.
Where some might criticize the game for being pretentious is in its theming. The game is a fairly obviously about the five stages of grief, which is accessible stuff in terms of psychology that many people will be familiar with. The game even spells this out in its achievements. That sounds like it’s exactly the kind of boring indie game platformer with an over-emotional story that you might imagine all these games are like, but don’t dismiss Gris so easily.
The game is certainly slow-paced and, at first, only gives you the ability to walk around and take in the atmosphere, with even walking sometimes resulting in tripping. However, the game finds novel ways to integrate this theming into gameplay directly. It lets its “pretentious” and “accessible” concept inform both the story, visuals, and gameplay, in a way not many other 2D platformers like this would. For an example, the Anger stage, color-coded red, is characterized by howling, aggressive winds that knock you off your feet and set you back. You have to stop and take shelter to avoid losing progress, until you get an ability to harden yourself into a strong block able to stand against the wind.
From there, Gris really develops itself into a genuine (if short) 2D platformer that certainly isn’t devoid of gameplay and doesn’t even necessarily have a slow pace. The fourth stage, Depression, sees you swimming underwater and descending into dark, murky depths where you must seek lights to proceed, but you swim fast and can even launch yourself out of the water to get a boost of speed when returning to land. It’s not a particularly hard game, but every stage brings in new gameplay ideas that grow increasingly complex. I was particularly fond of the Bargaining level, where you use platforming skills to dislodge apples from trees to buy the help of a small friend who is then used in a number of puzzles.
Difficulty is a bit low all-around and I finished the game in less than 3 hours, but I didn’t get all the collectibles that often lie behind tougher puzzles and more precise platforming challenges. You also build up an impressive reservoir of moves that remain consistently useful, so by the end of the game you are double jumping to reach clusters of butterflies that launch you upward into a zone where gravity is reversed and you gotta do some precise platforming upside-down. I was having fun with the game and not in a snobby way that requires a glass of wine. This game requires two hands and wine ain’t the same if you drink it through a long straw.
With that said, the game does still take the reins from you in obtrusive ways. Control is often suddenly taken away from you or your agency as the player isn’t respected. This is most notable in an exciting chase sequence, which falls flat when you realize that there is no way to lose. You can wiggle around a bit and dash to get more speed, but your character automatically moves forward and the enemy never really gets you, it always just barely misses.
Gris is certainly not without fault, but it marries the two halves of the artsy platformer and does so much better than many others. Its themes are easy to understand, but tie into gameplay nicely and are used to great effect for some powerful scenes and moments throughout the story. It’s a tad on the easy side, so I recommend the game to people who are already into artsy games as well as those who enjoy more casual 2D platformers. HARDCORE gamers might find it a tad unchallenging, but maybe the game’s art and character might tug at their heartstrings and compel them to check out Gris anyway.