It’s appropriate that Contrast deals with shadows. As light falls upon a floor and casts shapes on the ground, you understand that these objects are really just a single face of something else: a box, a lamp, or a person. And just like that, the game itself features many single attributes that could make something great. Contrast, however, never quite comes together in the way you’d hope.
Contrast is the first release from Montreal-based Compulsion Games. It tells the story of a little girl named Didi and her invisible friend Dawn, a slinky acrobatic woman, as they explore via puzzle-solving and platform-jumping the mysteriously broken world of a 1920s Europe. Or maybe it’s a 1930s US. It’s really hard to tell.
It’s hard to tell a lot of things about the games story, actually, but not in any meaningful or interesting way. The noir setting is visually beautiful with an almost ethereal bloom that highlights the otherworldly art deco design. If we lived in a world of floating detached streets and shadow people, this is how I would want it to look.
All of which should be in service of both the story and the gameplay, and it almost fails on both fronts. The story starts with two sizable scoops of mystery. How can Didi see Dawn but no one else can? What does her mom know about her father’s disappearance that she isn’t telling us? Where does Dawn go when she isn’t with Didi? It’s a great invitation for exploration with Didi being a peppy and lovable leader for the expedition.
We eventually get the answer to one of those as the action and puzzle bits are strung together with a story told through shadow people on exceedingly well lit walls. The story then falls down a hole of family dysfunction and mobsters and finding yourself, most of which is told through collectibles and moves in an engaging—if predictable—direction.
And then it ends. The ending feels as abrupt as if I were to en—
Yeah, it felt a lot like that. It ends with a twist that we had no reason to suspect or even justify upon subsequent revisits, the worst qualities of a twist. It answers absolutely zero questions and opens an infinite number of cans of infinite worms.
The length contributes some problems to the gameplay as well. In the game, you play as Dawn, a silent but very capable woman with the ability to shift in and out of shadows. This allows her to run along other shadows as an almost alternate, 2D representation of the world.
The range of abilities that we gain is limited to picking up objects and dashing through smaller shadows, and that fuels intrigue for a solid hour or so of puzzle-solving. But it feels as though the game takes an extremely linear slant, a severe change from an opening bit when you have the choice to wander a carnival and go about your quest at your leisure.
You’ll go a single direction, jump along a set path, and go on to the next part. Towards the end, there’s a platforming sequence that mirrors the rhythm of an earlier one where you watch a shadow performance on a wall as you try to clamber up their sloping arms and backs. As you hit each intermediary point, the scene progresses. It feels like a minor bump above a quick-time event.
This highlights two problems: 1) much of the solving process feels repetitive, almost brute forcing your way from going on direction, realizing you can’t go further, and then turning back or shifting into a shadow; and 2) the game is rather buggy. Nothing is ever broken, but no less than a dozen times per act I would find myself floating on geometry, assuming a strangely Vitruvian Man-esque pose. All you have to do is dash and you’ll break free, but it’s an odd and extremely consistent quirk.
And trying to climb up shadows that you can dynamically set yourself is a nightmare. Some slopes you think would be too steep, but you walk up them as easily as if you were covered in glue. Other times, you have to Skyrim bunny hop your way up a nearly flat expanse. It often feels like smashing your head against a locked door because oh wait it’s not a door it’s a wall someone forgot to put in a door.
At a preview with the game back at PAX Prime, I solved a puzzle despite neglecting one of the key components of Dawn’s shadow-shifting abilities, and it was wonderful. With her full range of abilities, Contrast‘s puzzles felt a lot less inspired. There was such potential here: a deliciously jazzy world, a story told through shadows, and a mechanic that forces your mind to blend 2D and 3D perspectives.
And it never quite gets there. Contrast gathers all the parts and puts together a piece that is too simple and too short to fully explore its own framework. The challenge in platforming is figuring out what it and isn’t acceptable and never tests your dexterity and the puzzles only force you to determine which paths are open and which are closed. Neither Dawn nor Didi’s stories seem complete (Dawn, in particular, amounts to little more than a forklift). Contrast casts a fascinating, beautiful shadow, but its constituent parts never hit that same level.
+ The jazzy noir world is delectable and ethereal in a way that provokes a lot of intrinsic questions
+ Didi’s story has some great layers, even if the dovetail is somewhat predictable
+ Shifting between shadows forces your brain to track a fantastic mix of 2D and 3D mental models
– Much of the platforming feels frustrating, bordering on being what could be considered broken
– The puzzles become mind-numbingly linear, testing the bounds of what is a “puzzle”
– You get shortchanged on the questions/answers ratio and it is more bewildering than Dawn’s existence
Final Score: 6 out of 10
Game Review: Contrast
Release: November 15, 2013
Genre: Third-person puzzle platformer
Developer: Compulsion Games
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PC