The capture button is one of our favourite things about the Switch. Any time you see something impressive in a game, the ability to snatch that image and freeze it in time forever is sitting right there next to your thumb. In most games, it’s only used every now and then, but by the time we’d finished Gris our screenshot gallery had literally hundreds of images in it.
Let’s cut to the chase: Gris is one of the most gorgeous games we’ve ever seen or heard, from the second it begins to the beautiful cutscene that plays shortly before it ends. We’ve never seen anything like this game, and its visuals have stuck with us long after the credits rolled.
The plot is deliberately vague. The story opens with a young girl – your character – sitting in the palm of a giant stone hand riddled with cracks. When the hand crumbles and eventually collapses, the girls tumbles through a seemingly endless sky until finally landing in an abstract and colourless world. It’s a stunning opening sequence, and perfectly sets the tone for the brief but beautiful adventure that’s to follow.
When you first begin, the game world is almost entirely black and white (hence Gris, the Spanish for grey: the development studio is based in Barcelona). The aim is to make your way through the various environments and experience certain encounters that trigger Gris’ emotions, causing a new colour to burst through the world.
As you play through the game, then, the environment becomes progressively more colourful and beautiful, a fitting metaphor for a story about a young woman dealing with sorrow after "a painful experience in her life", as the studio puts it. This unlocking of colours is a fantastic way to show progress via the most striking element of the game, the art design.
‘Breathtaking’ is a word many critics (including this one) often use in a non-literal sense. If a game looks lovely we’ll happily call it "breathtaking" because it does a good job of summing things up, even if it isn’t entirely accurate. Gris is one of those games where this is actually an entirely accurate description; there are at least a few occasions in this game where we literally gasped at what we were seeing.
There are times (more often than not) that you feel like you’re playing a piece of artwork here rather than a video game. The fact that everything was hand-drawn and painted by Conrad Roset – a Catalan artist with no past experience in game design – may be what’s worked wonders for Gris, because this regularly feels more like interactive art than a conventional piece of interactive entertainment.
Don’t get too alarmed, traditional gamers: underneath its stunning outer layer, Gris is still very much a game at its core. It’s a platformer with a few light puzzles; nothing too taxing that will prevent you from reaching the end of the game. You also can’t die – at least not that we could manage – and its handful of boss battles serve more as jaw-droppingly spectacular set-pieces than tests of your skill (we actually beat one by just continually pressing the B button).
Most of the game consists of finding glowing white stars, which follow you around as you continue to explore. Every now and then you’ll come across faint constellation outlines in the sky; the stars add themselves to these and, once you’ve got all the stars in a constellation, it’ll become solid and let you walk on it, leading you to the game’s next area where you usually have to repeat the process with a bigger constellation and a larger section to explore (i.e. you’ll need to find more stars).
There isn’t a lot of direction or hand-holding here. In fact, there are only two or three moments in the entire game where any words appear, and they’re just single-word instructions like ‘press’ or ‘hold’, encouraging you to try new abilities you’ve unlocked. Despite this, each new area is compact enough that you rarely get lost, and while the art is fantastically ornate and detailed, it’s never too intricate that you’ll miss things to collect or interact with.
Your aforementioned abilities are low in number and are unlocked at a handful of times throughout your journey. They do a good job at introducing new mechanics to keep things fresh, but they’re nothing too ground-breaking. The first lets you turn your dress into a hard, square shell, protecting you from strong winds and letting you ground pound through weak floors. Later you get a double jump and, as the game enters its final act, the ability to sing to activate dormant parts of the scenery and bring them to life.
Speaking of singing, Gris sounds as beautiful as it looks. The dream-like, emotional score by Barcelona-based group Berlinist is at times haunting, empowering and desperate. The soundtrack went up on Spotify earlier this morning – we haven’t downloaded anything to our phones so quickly since that time U2’s album was forced onto every iPhone.
Although it only lasts around three hours, Gris packs in many memorable little scenes and asides that most longer games would struggle to accomplish. One notable example is a side-story where you encounter a little cube creature, who you win over by feeding apples you knock down from a tree. He’ll tag along with you for a 15-minute stretch of the game and imitates you whenever you do a ground-pound; this allows for a couple of light puzzles based on this idea before you say your goodbyes and the game moves on to another scene, keen to ensure no gameplay mechanic outstays its welcome. This is game design Nintendo would approve of.
When it all comes together, Gris will affect you. The ending aside – which is open to interpretation to an extent – the most notable moment for us came after we survived a particularly epic boss encounter and went on to unlock the colour blue. Without spoiling anything, the combination of what had just happened, the silence that followed, where we ended up and the subsequent simultaneous burst of colour and music all culminated so perfectly and reached such an emotional crescendo that when the sequence was over we realised our eyes were soaking.
When you look at it in terms of pure numbers, £14.49 / $16.99 for a game that only lasts a few hours won’t be a deal that appeals to everyone. Those who enjoyed the likes of Journey or Inside, though, will already be fully aware that three hours spent in games like those can linger and stay in the player’s head, in their dreams, in their heart, far longer than a hundred hours in any other generic, fetch-quest-filled game you care to mention. And Gris absolutely should be put in that same family as Journey, Inside and other modern classics, because nothing else we’ve ever played has looked or felt so beautiful.
We’re very careful when we use this word, but Gris is a masterpiece. Its jaw-dropping visual style and heart-wrenching score combine for one of the most emotional pieces of interactive art you’ll ever play. It may be too short for some, its puzzles may be on the simple side and the lack of any real challenge may not be to everyone’s taste, but this is a game focused more on fragility than ability and as long as you’re willing to go along for the ride, it’s one that will stick with you for a very long time indeed.