I wanted to love Contrast coming into it, I really did. It seemed like it was going to be right in my wheelhouse: an art game with a mature storyline and some clever puzzle mechanics. Everything from the aesthetics to the controls seemed tailor made for me. However, at the end of my three hour play-through, I was left wanting more.
In Contrast, you play as Dawn, the imaginary friend of a little girl named Didi in 1920’s Paris. Dawn is a mute acrobat who has the ability to switch between living in the real world and melding into the shadows. While in shadow form, you can use any existing shadows as platforms to transverse gaps or sneak behind locked doors.
The story here starts off well, but quickly spirals into tired tropes. I’m hesitant to really discuss much of it out of fear of spoiling key points, but I imagine most of you will figure out where things are going before too long. Didi’s parents are separated, and her dad is making all of the wrong decisions in an effort to win his family back. It’s nothing unique or exciting, and at the end of the game it ends extremely abruptly without really addressing anything. It’s quite a shame too since it feels like Compulsion Games was really trying to tell a compelling story, but got so tied up trying tell a pretty one that they forget to actually say something of substance. There were so many unique aspects of this game introduced from the beginning that were never even remotely explained, and outside of a “twist” immediately before the credits rolled, never even really mentioned.
One thing that can’t be downplayed here is that the overall aesthetics are very well done. Watching the shadows dance off the walls as you plan your jumps while jazz creeps out of clubs and down the back alleys of the busy streets is simply impressive. The noire setting is absolutely vibrant. However, the game’s fundamental mechanics become a liability here. Since Dawn and Didi are the only “humans” present, the cityscape feels very empty. You’ll hear some chatter from the void and you’ll occasionally see main characters interact via their shadows, but the world seems pretty lonely at times.
The actual gameplay of Contrast feels equally unfinished. Dawn has the ability to morph into the shadows and use them to navigate some platforming and solve puzzles. Initially, this is an absolute blast, but it doesn’t take long for this one trick pony to grow a bit tired.
The actual platforming mechanics are very loose and Dawn controls rather poorly. The game is extremely finicky about what would be considered a ledge you can or can’t land on, and there’s no real way to tell if the problem is an invisible wall or if you just missed by a centimetre. The reward for completing some of the more challenging sections varies between a collectible (which does offer more backstory and information into the world) and a luminary that can be used to solve puzzles. The issue is that you really only need 3 or 4 luminaries per act, so there’s no real reason to collect all 15.
Compounding this, the game doesn’t always seem to recognize when you’re in position to hit a button or flip a switch. This can usually be fixed by moving back and forth a bit, but that’s not really something I thought we’d still have to do at this point.
Admittedly, the puzzles are cute, but usually boil down to getting a box and placing it on a platform. There are some standouts, such as when you have to use a pirate ship’s wheel to carry a box between platforms, but there are still a few bugs here which cause your box to simply fall out of the shadows and force you to try again. There was one puzzle near the end that I am convinced I never actually solved. It introduced one of the few new mechanics you’ll encounter, but I simply abused the physics system to balance the box near a pit and grab it from the other side. Truth be told, it wasn’t until I started writing this sentence that I actually realized how it should have been solved in the first place.
The bugs don’t stop there, sadly. I was able to get Dawn stuck in walls and behind barriers on more than a few occasions by dashing around. Usually, I’d be able to dash my way out after slamming some buttons, but there were a few occasions where I either had to find a pit to fall in or reset the save.
What really sealed Contrast’s fate was its length. I was able to finish Contrast in 2 hours and 34 minutes according to Raptr, and I only missed one collectible during my play-through. The main story is tied up by the end, but in such a way that it never addresses any of the questions I had, and I was never really able to feel that sense of accomplishment that comes with beating a game.
Contrast shows so much potential that it’s almost criminal to see it falter the way it does. One moment that will stand out in my head for years to come takes place during the game’s second act where you play the role of a princess in a puppet show. Listening to Didi’s father tell her the story while you act it out was, in a word, heartwarming. It reminded me of my first time playing through Braid as the narrator reacted to me as opposed to me reacting to the narrator, and left me wanting so much more.
Compulsion Games has piqued my interest in their studio. Underneath what is a blatantly unfinished game is a lot of potential not addressed. They very well could produce the next indie darling game, but Contrast is not it. It’s free for Playstation Plus members on the PS4, and it’s undoubtedly worth a look if you nab it, but there’s nothing here I can recommend paying for right now. Here’s hoping that Compulsion can reproduce the charm and magic found here in a finished title.
It pains me to pan a game that shows so much potential, but as it stands right now, you can safely pass on Contrast.
This review is based on the PC version of the game.
Contrast had the potential to be the breakout indie game of the new generation, but has managed to fall drastically short of what I had imagined.