By: Nomada Studio / Devolver Digital
I’m a sucker for pretty visuals, so when the trailer for Nomada Studio’s GRIS was first released back in 2018, I was jealous of everyone who would be able to play it on their platform of choice. I hoped it might make it to mobile one day, but I know that platformers don’t always transition well to touchscreens and the developers might not think it’s worth doing. So when the iOS port was announced a few weeks back, I was both thrilled and a tiny bit worried that the controls might mar the experience. But as I mentioned last week, just minutes in my fears melted away and I let myself get completely absorbed into the game.
GRIS starts off with a young woman losing her voice. All color drains out of the world and everything turns gray, which is also the definition of gris in multiple languages. The story itself is somewhat vague and open to interpretation, not least because there are no words. But you can gather from the cutscenes, as well as some of the GameCenter achievements, that it’s about loss and grief. Gris goes on a journey to heal and restore color to her world. So each chapter is named after a color, which is added back in like watercolor paint dripped onto canvas. This means that, even though the game is already gorgeous from the start, it gets even prettier with progress. I can’t really do the game any justice trying to describe its art style, so just look at the screenshots and GIFs. I think they speak for themselves. And add to that the most breathtaking soundtrack I’ve heard in a game.
The game is a puzzle platformer, which, in its most basic terms, means you’ll be jumping over gaps and working out what to do next. You start off with only the ability to move around and jump, but new skills are added as you progress. Having completed the PC demo at PlayNYC with a controller, and then starting the game on my Switch, I knew that there were some demanding platforming sections and was concerned how the controls might be handled. If there were onscreen buttons, I would likely never stand a chance, as I’d spend the whole game staring at my fingers to make sure they land on the right spot on the screen. Thankfully, the controls are entirely gesture-based. Touch anywhere on the left side of the screen to move and bring up a subdued floating joystick that doesn’t hide any of the action. Tap anywhere on the right side of the screen to jump. Simple as that. And if you take your fingers off the screen, the user interface disappears so there’s nothing blocking the scenery.
Having played part of the game before, I knew that the first ability you earn is to turn yourself into a heavy cube. Even before I had it, I noticed that when you swipe down, theres a dotted line. So I predicted that would be the gesture for using that ability. And it turns out I was right. It just feels so intuitive to swipe down, since you use that skill to break things. Later, you’ll be able to double jump by tapping the screen again in mid-air. Again, perfectly natural. The final skill, which I won’t spoil for you, involves swiping up. This means all the actions can be performed without looking at your fingers or worrying about where they land on the screen. You just have to remember to swipe up or down as needed and, since it’s intuitive, I found that easier than playing with a controller.
And if that wasn’t enough to show that the developers put the effort into making a proper port, the game utilized iCloud sync so you can swap between your iPhone and iPad. It also has the best form of iCloud saves, since it gives control over it to the player. Your progress is automatically sent to the cloud, but upon each boot-up, you’re asked whether you want to load from the cloud or keep your local save. So many games take that choice away, and it means so much to have it back. And since the controls are all gesture-based, you don’t have to worry about buttons feeling awkward on a big iPad screen. There are black bars on the top and bottom, but I can’t really fault them for that since the game was not designed for the iPad dimensions. It’s obvious with every little detail that this wasn’t just some cheap port to squeeze some extra money out of a new audience. I couldn’t imagine it feeling any more perfect for mobile had it been designed for the platform from day one.
The gameplay itself is varied and rewarding. One section might involve hopping across platforms between sandstorms, while another has you facing a giant bird. There are butterflies that send you soaring through the air, crumbling floors, watery trees you can swim through, and even reverse gravity. I appreciated how earlier abilities are never forgotten, but instead combined with newer ones in clever ways. The game also encourages exploration. Each chapter branches off in different directions so you can search for stars that will allow you to unlock the next area, and perhaps even a new ability. There are also optional stars that act as collectibles and give you special achievements if you find them all. They’re fun to look for and some can be pretty challenging to acquire. Luckily, you can revisit any chapter once you complete the game, so you don’t have to worry too much about finding everything on your first run. I missed quite a few extras, but I’m glad for a reason to return to the game. It’s an audiovisual orgasm.
I can’t tell you how many times I stopped to ogle at both the animations and the music. It’s all in the little details. There are critters scurrying about, beasts that chase you, even weather effects. One really nice touch is how the stars you collect trail behind you so you can see how many you have so far for a specific area. I still can’t believe I have a game like GRIS in my pocket, wherever I go. If I’m on the train, I can pull it out and look for a collectible I’m missing or try for one of the harder achievements. I can play in bed, in a park, or just on my couch. I miss out on a lot of quality games since most developers don’t bother porting over to iOS, but I’m so glad this is not one of them. You have no idea how lucky I feel to have finally played this absolute gem of a game and to be able to take it everywhere with me.
For the most part, the game has felt fair, with any mishaps being my own fault and not the controls or the puzzle design. But there were a couple of points that bothered me. The first was early on and I had the problem on both my Switch and iPhone, so I can’t blame the touch controls for it. There’s a point where you need to weigh down these movable platforms. There’s two of them next to each other, so I tried getting in the middle and pushing both at the same time. But the divider kept getting in the way and I assumed that just wasn’t the right solution. I learned later that it was indeed, and finally managed to make it work after several more attempts. That slowed down the flow of the game for me, and got things off to a bit of a rough start. But I was able to forgive it once I moved on and didn’t encounter any other issues like that. Then later, there was a particularly tricky platforming section where you have to jump from watery tree to watery tree. It’s not that difficult on its own, but Gris blends in with the water, making it hard to aim my jumps properly. Playing on a small iPhone screen only made it worse. I managed to succeed through perseverance, but I was frustrated that it took so many attempts just because I was practically blind. But again, these moments are few and far between. The game is generally very fair and forgiving. I especially appreciate that there’s no death or fail state. The worst thing that happens is you miss a jump and have to retry. That makes for a much more relaxing experience than one where you have to dodge enemies in addition to the platforming.
Quite simply, GRIS is a masterpiece. I can’t think of any reason not to play it. Even if you tend to avoid platformers and reflex-based games, give it a chance. I struggled with it at times, but with the tight, responsive controls and clever puzzle design, I never felt like giving up. This is a game that offers a challenge without being sadistic. And for those who want more, the optional collectibles are often harder to reach. GRIS is a treat for all the senses, one of those games that comes around so rarely, that combines everything into one package. And on top of it all, the iOS port is absolutely perfect. Don’t sit this one out. Download GRIS and see what a true work of love looks like.