Gris – The Switch Island Review
Even in an age where the case for games being recognised as art has never been more compelling… where do I begin with this one?
GRIS is the first release from the Barcelona-based team at Nomada Studios. In the five or so hours that I spent exploring this watercolour-rich world, I was left speechless at the stunning art design of producer Conrad Roset Tenllado, and was swept away by the game’s entirely visual approach to storytelling. There is no dialogue, no bodies of text to scroll through, or cutscenes littered with characters to move this story forward.
GRIS opens with the sight of a young woman (and titular character) sitting in the palm of a giant statue of a woman. She opens her mouth to speak but tragedy befalls her.
Panic-stricken, she clutches her throat at the realisation that her voice has been taken from her. As the statue crumbles and Gris falls into a lifeless grey world once awash with colour, Berlinist’s score swells and it becomes clear that this is a title built to work your emotions. Themes such as separation-anxiety and depression have led to some of my favourite gaming experiences in recent times (Celeste and the narrative-heavy Gone Home being standouts) so the fractured world of GRIS is familiar but welcome territory.
As you play, it soon becomes clear that lying beneath the beautiful, high-art visuals is a fairly traditional 2D platformer. GRIS can be best categorized as a puzzle-based Metroidvania-lite with progression coming in the form of abilities that are unlocked by collecting stars along the way.
First among the abilities that you unlock is the transformation of Gris’ cloak into a solid stone block. Not only does this allow you to perform a stomp move with which you can use to crash through the cracked ground beneath your feet, this aids you during a sequence early into the story where Gris’ progression is hampered by a series of powerful winds. As she takes a step forward, she is sent tumbling backwards by each gust. Equipped with the first ability, Gris can transform her small frame into a mighty block of stone and move closer to her goal.
The other abilities consist of the rather self-explanatory double-jump, swim and….well….I’d be spoiling things now. The final ability lends itself to some of the most rewarding and beautiful moments in the game.
As well as helping you to progress through the world, abilities aid you against the game’s small number of bosses. Let me stress that GRIS is not a hard game at all. You cannot die and these encounters are less ‘battles’ and more puzzles where you are required to outwit the aggressor before you are ultimately propelled to a new area.
As well as offering you new abilities, stars also form pathways across constellations that you find in the night sky. Each pathway takes you to previously inaccessible area and lead to a central tower from where you restore colour back into the world. Watching Gris ascend into the skies above as drops of red spill across previously lifeless greys was an incredibly emotional experience. It was at times overwhelming as I watched a piece of the world being restored and Gris herself taking those first steps to recovery. I can only compare the feeling to seeing Madeline willing herself on in Celeste.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the music of Barcelona-based group Berlinist again. The score to GRIS is every bit crucial to the feeling this game evokes as the visuals. From subtle piano melodies to intense strings, the music tells a story and doesn’t release it’s hold on you until the credits roll. I won’t spoil the closing moments of the game, but let’s just say I might have received a few concerned looks from fellow passengers on the commute home.
I could keep talking about GRIS but I honestly don’t want to. I could detail each colour with which you restore the world, or the one adotable tertiary character that you encounter. I just feel that this is a game that you should experience without knowing too much.
In closing, GRIS is one of the finest titles on the Switch and a late contender for my game of last year. Some might bemoan the heavy game-as-art leanings and relatively basic gameplay mechanics, but GRIS isn’t trying to be anything other than a deeply emotional experience that deals with the subject of personal loss and rewards you with re-discovering one’s self. I cannot recommend it enough.