Contrast was a game that stole my heart when I saw it back in August at Gamescom this year. I loved the style, and all the sights and sounds of the 1920s, and combining that with some unique puzzle and platforming elements turned it into my game of the show. Now the game is out, so did it live up to my expectations? In part, but it fell down in some areas that prevented it from being truly great.
From 3D to 2D and back
We follow the story of a young girl called Didi, viewed from the perspective of Dawn, her imaginary friend. Didi’s parents have a troubled relationship to stay the least. Her father is constantly falling in with the wrong crowd, while her mother is struggling to make a name for herself as a singer. Didi takes it upon herself to mend their marriage, with a lot of help from Dawn. No one else can see her, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t exist, as she has the ability to switch from the 3D real world into the 2D shadows.
It is a really interesting mechanic that has you relearning what you know about puzzle games, much in the same way that Portal did back in 2007, but sadly not to the same extent. There are some very clever puzzles to be solved here, but they are just not up to the same quality as Valve’s finest. Most of the game you will be moving physical objects around, or shining lights on them to create shadows. You can then run up to a flat surface and shift into it, and platform across the shadows as if they were physical objects. For example, one sequence sees the need for you to get onto a rooftop, so turning on a nearby carousel and climbing up the moving shadows created by the rotating horses is a great way to get up there.
There isn’t a great deal of variety though. In general if you can interact with something, you will know it needs to be used to solve the puzzle in some way. You gain a dash ability, which enables you to smash through real world objects, and more importantly to travel through solid shadows blocking your path, but other than that you will just be jumping. You can grab ledges and pull yourself up, but the game is very picky about which ledges you are allowed to grab. The platforming itself isn’t as precise as I would like it to be. Being able to clamber over the shadows of people as they are having a conversation is smart and looks really cool, but I was constantly slipping off or getting caught on little edges. If the actual gameplay mechanics were tightened up, this would be a great game, because its style, story and particularly its soundtrack are truly outstanding.
Short and sweet
The first time I loaded the game up, I was about to hit New Game, as you would expect. But then I stopped. The song that was playing over the menu was so good, that I sat there and listened to the whole thing before beginning my playthrough. It wasn’t long after that I was supposed to follow Didi to the next area, but instead I stuck around in the Ghost Note, a cabaret club, to catch the end of a song through the closed backstage door. The soundtrack in collaboration with Laura Ellis is superb, I just wish there were more of it later in the game. And that goes for the actual gameplay too. It is a short and sweet story, but I finished it in about three hours, and was left wanting more.
Visually it looks pretty good, with an obvious emphasis on contrast between light and shadow. Although the overall tone of the game is dark, there are some nice splashes of colour, and some really bright areas. The only character models in the game are that of Didi and Dawn, the rest of the characters are depicted only in shadow, a device used by much of the noir fiction that Contrast is based on. There are plenty of clichés from that era that the game falls back on, but it is never too cheesy. Despite the youth of the character that the story revolves around, the narrative is quite grown up, and definitely becomes more complex as it progresses. I got a very Bioshock Infinite vibe from it, although the storytelling and the world are not as in depth. There are quite a few collectibles hidden around the world, and I would definitely recommend searching them out, as without them the ending might seem a little confusing and abrupt. Although you should notice that there is definitely something amiss the first time you notice a section of the world has simply fallen away into an abyss…
Not quite fleshed out enough
I really wanted Contrast to be a surprise hit and turn out to be one of the games of the year. The foundations are there and the premise is one of the most original we have seen in recent times, but it’s just not quite fleshed out enough. I would still recommend playing it to see the clever ways in which you can interact with the environments, and the story is good enough to keep you interested throughout. I hope the ideas and themes can be perpetuated into a new game in the future.
Great style and soundtrack, with some unique gameplay mechanics.
A little short, and the platforming isn't tight enough.