Contrast Review – Potential is Lost in the Shadows

If you look at the surge of great puzzle platformers in recent years – games like Braid, Portal, VVVVVV, and most recently The Swapper – most revolve around a core gameplay mechanic that forces you to rewire your brain to think within the game’s world in order to solve puzzles that can only exist in that particular game.

Contrast, a puzzle platformer developed by Montreal based Compulsion Games, succeeds in that regard as well. Its core mechanic of being able to interact with both the 3D world and 2D world of shadows on the wall is, at least initially, exciting and appropriately mind bending. But while the aforementioned games continuously introduce new wrinkles and twists to their core mechanic to keep things fresh, one gets the feeling while playing Contrast that Compulsion Games hit a brick wall when it came to further developing theirs.

Contrast
Platform: PS4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox 360, PS3
Developer: Compulsion Games
Publisher: Sony
Release Date: Nov. 15, 2013
MSRP: $15.00

Contrast tells the story of a young girl named Didi and her broken family that she’s trying to get back together. On one hand you have her mother, Kat, an up and coming cabaret singer who does her best to raise Didi as a single parent, but doesn’t have much time to spend with her daughter due to her job. And on the other you have Johnny, Didi’s bumbling father who’s always looking for an easy way to make some cash, but somehow always winds up screwing things up.

As Didi’s imaginary friend, Dawn, players traverse a wonderfully noir themed Parisian city and attempt to aid Johnny in his attempt to start up a circus and win back the heart of his beloved Kat, thereby bringing the family back together.

There’s a lot of heart in Contrast’s story, and since the characters are all shadows on the wall, it has some neat moments where the player is able to climb onto the silhouettes as the story is played out. Unfortunately it has the familiar problem where much of the underlying story and world building lore is hidden in collectibles. So if you don’t collect them all, there’s a feeling that you might’ve missed something important. It doesn’t help too that the game ends with many questions left unanswered.

As mentioned earlier, the core mechanic at play in Contrast is the ability of Dawn to leap into a lit surface and become a shadow. Once inside the shadow realm, she can then walk on other shadows to reach places in the 3D world that would’ve been impossible to reach otherwise.

There are some truly inventive ways in which this mechanic is utilized, such as being able to move a light source and affect the size and direction of a shadow in order to make a path up to the platform above. But as neat as the solutions to Contrast’s puzzles are, they’re mostly all pretty easy to figure out, which is a big problem in a game as short on content as Contrast is.

There’s definitely some improvement in the latter puzzles of the third and final act. The puzzles get longer, more elaborate, more creative, and you’re challenged to interact with your environment in ways that hadn’t been possible up until that point. If there was at least one more act that had puzzles of the same caliber as the ones from Act 3, Contrast would be a much easier recommendation.

While the puzzles rarely pose much of a challenge, the platforming bits of Contrast can be quite difficult for all of the wrong reasons. Controls feel too loose and precision platforming becomes tricky when you’re forced to throw in a very fast air dash in order to break through thin shadows. Fortunately, there is a generous checkpoint system so while dying because of the controls may get annoying, it never gets too frustrating.

On the plus side, the music is fantastic. Compulsion enlisted the talents of jazz singer Laura Ellis for the music of the game and it is one decision that paid off in spades. The voice acting is also very strong, and it’s especially refreshing to hear an actual child in the role of Didi as opposed to an adult putting on a child’s voice. There’s a nice sense of authenticity to Didi’s sweetness and naivety.

There’s a great game hidden somewhere in the shadows of Contrast, and every now and then you see brief glimpses of that potential brilliance. But one can’t help but feel like the game either ran out of time or ran out of ideas. For Playstation Plus subscribers, Contrast is a free download and well worth your time. But for $15 on Steam and for those without a PS+ subscription, it’s just not worth your money. Wait for a sale before buying a ticket to this circus.

Pros:

  • Fantastic core gameplay mechanic that is, at least initially, initially mind bending and exciting
  • There are some really great puzzles that utilize the shadow mechanic in very inventive ways
  • Wonderful noir setting
  • Intriguing story with a lot of heart
  • Amazing soundtrack courtesy of Jazz Singer Laura Ellis

Cons:

  • Very short. Can be completed in 3-4 hours.
  • Majority of puzzles are really easy to figure out
  • Ending leaves many unanswered questions
  • Poor platforming controls
  • Quite buggy

Final Score: 65/100

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