Closing off another banner year for the Nintendo Switch, releasing in a period following Nintendo’s big Christmas hitters – Smash Bros. and Let’s Go – was never going to be particularly easy. And yet as we’ve seen with the likes of Monster Boy, if you’re good enough people are going to stand up and take notice. It’s taken me a while this year to find a game that I could connect to on a different level than the likes of Smash and Monster Boy, as When the Water Tastes Like Wine hit me hard earlier in the year, I wanted another game to connect to in that way, and it’s not often this season is where you’re going to find it. Fortunately, Devolver Digital exist. And whilst we’re lucky to have them around for so many reasons, bringing us Nomada’s GRIS might just be one of the best Christmas presents you’ll receive this year.
Gaming dealing with loss, depression and grief is an area it’s expanding in over the last couple of years. Whether it be the likes of Hellblade, The Town of Light, Edith Finch or That Dragon Cancer, being able to portray the vast array of emotions one feels when coping with any kind of sadness has become a huge strength of the medium. Being able to symbolically place us into a grief-stricken world, normally portrayed with a single protagonist narrative, has allowed us to learn more and understand its tragic effects. GRIS has once again brought a new perspective, in somewhat beautiful and moving ways throughout.
GRIS tells a story of a girl who has lost her voice in a world without colour. As the game begins we see her singing to a large statue of a woman which crumbles around her, dropping her into the world below with no real idea of where she is or what she needs to do. The game is very silent throughout this, allowing us to feel the true effect of what has happened. A quick press of the A button has your character trying to catch her voice, only for her to shrug her shoulders when it remains lost. GRIS is about collecting fragments to allow your protagonist to traverse this world, creating new paths via constellations that she can walk upon to proceed. At the end of each level a new colour will return to the world. Through various puzzles and some somewhat tricky platforming sections, GRIS opens up and becomes a deliriously beautiful spectacle.
And that effectively is what GRIS is. It’s a platformer with some puzzles to unlock new paths. You could argue that there’s little here in terms of intense difficulty (despite the initial lack of hand-holding, perhaps), though there’s much more here in terms of an experience than a challenging puzzler. Games that fall into this category (the aforementioned Edith Finch, Firewatch etc…) will always be divisive, though the joy of GRIS is that there is wonders to see, to try and understand the world you’re in and how there’s no real enemy as such, only the elements and the puzzles. You can’t die or take damage, your protagonist has zero fall damage (thankfully) and yet you know for the suffering is going on within. The more platformer elements come from powers she can discover as the game moves forward.
Then there’s the score, which almost immediately was a favourite of the year. Composed by Berliner, the raw emotion conveyed through sound, accompanying the beautiful vocals of your protagonist puts the hair up on the back of your neck, fully absorbing the world and complimenting the gameplay and visuals perfectly. I think some of the best videogame scores allow you to learn the story and what a character is feeling without the use of voice acting or text prompts, this is exactly what Berliner’s score does in GRIS. With no vocals, just pure beauty resonating from each melody, whether it be the completion of a level, the score that explodes with pianos and organs upon a windstorm or just the sound that encompasses this broken world, I’d be hard pressed to find another soundtrack this year which had as much of an effect on me as Berliner’s did. Magic.
And of course, a review of GRIS is no review without a mention of the spectacular visual splendour throughout. Hand-drawn with watercolour backgrounds makes this game stand out from damn near all of its competitors. It’s truly astonishing just how gorgeous every single frame of this game is, allowing you to fall deep into a world that requires your skills to become even more beautiful than it was in the first place. The tone is set immediately, and as you fall deeper into this world every layer presents a new expression of grief and loss, particularly the wind storms that fills the screen at intermittent moments. The force of grief and sadness coming full force without warning. There’s beauty in every hand-drawn corner, a smart antithesis to the darkness of the story.
Just when it begins to become nearly too overwhelming, though, it’s all over. GRIS is undoubtedly a compact experience, but one that needs to be experienced, either on Switch or PC (though it’s worth mentioning whilst it looks terrific in handheld mode, GRIS really should be experienced docked on a big screen). Whether it be the spectacular soundtrack or well, the spectacular visuals, GRIS tells a story that is tragic and uplifting, emotionally fuelled and near-perfect in its execution.
It challenges you, but not in the ways you might expect.
GRIS is available now on Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PC.
Developer: Nomada Studios
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review we were provided with a promotional code from the publishers. For our full review policy, please go here.