Review: GRIS – A Charming, Beautifully-Designed Little Platformer

GRIS is an atmospheric game about grief, pain, and the importance of color in even the darkest of times. Released last December on PC, Mac and the Nintendo Switch, the game gained quite a bit of attention, and it is evident to see why. With gorgeous artwork, an enchanting score, and simple but relaxing platforming, GRIS is perfect for those lazy days when you just want to unwind.

GRIS’s story is purposely vague. The protagonist, a blue-haired young woman also named Gris, is attempting to make peace with her depression from a traumatic experience. There is no dialogue or narration, so the story is mostly told by the game’s stunning visuals. The story is intentionally ambiguous, but it can be confusing. As you advance through the chapters, Gris begins to grow and see her world through another perspective.

The game is a metaphor for grief: you hurt enormously in the beginning, but over time, you start to rebuild your life and learn to accept what has happened. It can often be difficult to find the light at the end of a dark tunnel, and GRIS does a subtle, but effective job at depicting those hard times. Although not completely healed, Gris will eventually learn to come to terms with her trauma and attempt to move past it. The gameplay is Gris’s journey on tackling and overcoming that pain.

GRIS screenshot
Friend or foe?

Fun, yet Simple

The areas in GRIS are mostly linear, with each level having a set path to follow in order to progress. There are simple puzzles, which are rarely challenging, as well as some light platforming. The puzzles and platforming elements do get slightly more difficult over time, but they are still quite straightforward. A particular instance of this is leaping onto treetops that change their platforms each time you jump. It doesn’t take long to figure out the pattern, and once you do, it becomes second nature.

Sometimes GRIS moves so quickly it doesn’t take full advantage of its good ideas. For example, in one section you use your block ability as a stepping stone to reach higher platforms, but the mechanic was gone almost as soon as it was introduced. Some of these concepts could have been explored further to make for much more interesting gameplay. It’s a shame that they were underutilized.

On her journey, Gris will learn new skills which help you advance through the game’s story. This changes up the pace a little and adds a bit of diversity. When you complete a chapter, you gain a new color, which expands the vibrancy of the world and takes you to a new area to explore. There are some collectibles you can go back to gather once you’ve acquired a new ability, but that’s it for side-quests.

The game is free of death and health bars, so it’s seldom frustrating. There are some enemies that serve as kind of “bosses” in the game, but they can’t hurt you. A puzzle or platforming sequence is usually involved to surpass them. Nevertheless, these “boss fights” are exciting to play through, and they include this intense, grand music that continues to build. They are a definite high-point of GRIS.

GRIS screenshot
The bird is one of the “bosses” in GRIS.

Art and Symmetry

GRIS’s artwork is undoubtedly its strongest feature. The watercolor-inspired visuals make it look more like a painting than a video game. As you progress, you unlock more colors, which further increases the beauty of the game. These newly acquired colors bleed into the existing ones, and it’s truly breathtaking to watch.

In addition to this painting-esque scenery, there is a focus on sharp, neat lines. The buildings and trees are perfectly straight and rectangular, and the constellations you form by collecting these glowing orbs look like something out of a dot-to-dot book. It’s aesthetically pleasing and complements the vibrant background nicely.

The gameplay incentive is based on unlocking new colors for the world as you progress. Unlocking another color is your reward for completing an area, and this makes the levels much more rich and detailed. It’s a different approach from most video games, where usually you are rewarded with experience points or items after finishing a mission. It’s delightfully refreshing, and further heightens the importance of art in GRIS.

GRIS screenshot
These statues appear near the end of levels and grant new colors to the world.

There are times, however, when the artwork gets in the way of playing the game. It is sometimes difficult to differentiate between the background and foreground. A few times I found myself stuck in an area only to discover that the next path I needed to take was past a white pillar which I thought was part of the setting. Some of the platforms, such as the lines of raindrops on the trees in the forest area, appear to be unreachable when, surprisingly, they are meant to be jumped onto. The lack of distinction can be quite frustrating at times.

Easy Listening

Another great quality of GRIS is its gorgeous soundtrack. The poignant, melancholy score accompanies the art style wonderfully. Each chapter of the game has a different piece of music that perfectly fits the area. The powerful, tension-building music in the cutscenes is particularly enthralling and demonstrates that a game like this doesn’t need dialogue to be effective. The piercing, hollow notes of the piano and the pensive, haunting sounds of the string instruments work spectacularly in unison, and it’s difficult not to be captured into GRIS’s detailed world. The lovely soundtrack heightens how much of a joy GRIS is to play. Quite often I found myself captivated, glued in place, gazing at the scenery and listening to the score.

GRIS screenshot
The music in the more darker areas of GRIS is gloomy and slightly eerie.

Short, but Sweet

Despite some underwhelming puzzles and unused potential in its mechanics, GRIS is a charming platformer. It has some of the best art seen in indie games, and its soundtrack is brilliant. GRIS succeeds at creating a mesmerizing, enchanting experience that is sure to pull on your heartstrings. The length of the game is incredibly short and shouldn’t take more than a few hours to complete, but the other great elements of the game more than make up for this. It is a must play for fans of atmospheric titles such as Fe, Aer, Abzû, and Journey. On those quiet, rainy days when you just want to relax, GRIS is a perfect accompaniment.

Charlotte reviewed GRIS using a personally purchased copy.

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