Review: Contrast

Contrast

I have a weakness for pulp fiction. Not just the Quentin Tarantino movie, but all great gritty, noir narratives. The seedy underside of humanity and the struggle to stay alive, and the choices people make to try to better themselves is often rife with conflict and dilemmas that may be a bit overly dramatic, but makes for fascinating entertainment.

In Contrast, Compulsion Games has developed a wonderful pulp story set in a visually striking world that uses shadow and light to drive gameplay forward. Shadow and light, good and bad, science and magic, are several contrasting elements explored in the game, and one thing is clear: You can’t have one without the other.

The story unfolds as a young girl, Didi, asks her imaginary friend, Dawn, to help make her family whole. Or is she imaginary? Dawn has the ability to shift into the flat shadows and traverse areas that otherwise would be impossible to reach in a three-dimensional world. What is fascinating about Contrast is how the story unfolds. Is it told from the perspective of the young Didi? Is everything she sees imaginary? All adults in the game only appear in shadow form. Yet Dawn is both physical and shadow. This offers a unique storytelling perspective as exposition is provided in the form of shadows acting out a conversation while providing a platform for which Dawn must jump around on in order to reach the next area. 

The exaggerated shadow play requires quick reflexes at times, but also can be a bit of a hindrance on the overall gameplay. If a jump is missed, Dawn may fall to her death which then requires the exposition to be started over again. The same looping narrative can feel a bit repetitive if a jump is missed multiple times in succession.

While Didi and Dawn are both physical in the world, there are moments when Didi interacts with both of her parents. At times the interaction is shadow to shadow, while others occur between shadows and Didi’s physical body. This plays on the notion minimally explained in the game that shadows are simply people in an alternate dimension that have a direct impact on the physical world. To the average person in the game this seems like magic, yet Contrast attempts to provide a scientific explanation that feels almost unnecessary. It’s a video game, as long as the mechanics work well, I don’t need a rational explanation on how it all works. Let the beauty and magic just happen. What makes my point even more clear is the fact that the science of the game is mentioned briefly between characters but is more thoroughly explained in collectibles found in the world (which can be easily missed or overlooked).

As a father of three kids, I can sympathize with Didi’s father. He does what he can to try and make his family happy. Unfortunately, his actions are more often than not done without seeing the full consequences, which then gets him in trouble as his good intentions lead to bad circumstances. Contrast builds a wonderful world of opportunity for Didi to fix her father’s mistakes with the help of Dawn. Didi is a smart young girl that is more than capable of taking care of herself (with the help of Dawn). At the same time she is such a brat toward her father and is overly critical of the mistakes he makes. To me, this is great character development. I love them all, but at the same time hate how quick to blame they are.

Puzzles in the game are solved in a variety of different ways. Some puzzles require light to be manipulated to cast shadows which then allow a story beat to play out. Other puzzles require physical items to be picked up and then shifted into shadow form so that they can be moved to different locations. One antagonist in the game is a magician who has an elaborate laboratory for creating new tricks to perform. This laboratory provides a fun set of Rube Goldberg-like puzzles that involve the use of both shadow and light, physical and non-physical interactions to progress forward.

I only have one real complaint with the game. There are times when Dawn will get stuck in physical objects. If she picks up a block and needs to shift into the shadows, there are times when she can’t get close enough to the wall in order to shift. Dawn will get stuck holding the object up or the animation to put the block down is drawn with an incredibly slow glitchy, staccato pace. Other times, when Dawn moves up against objects or walls, her animations default to a Jesus-on-the-cross-like pose and the only way to break out of the pose is to use a dash power which resets her normal pose or gait.

Although a bit janky around the edges, Contrast offers a tight narrative and a visual style that is both charming and evocative in the way that it effectively plays up on the theme of light and shadow. The music and visuals just ooze cool. While the game doesn’t take long to complete, the story is focused on the redemption of a family and the journey throughout is imaginative and fun. 

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Effective use of shadow and light in puzzles
+ Compelling narrative and characters
+ Cool noir vibe and art style

Cons:
– Glitchy movement at times while shifting into shadows
– Repetitive scenes during some platforming sections

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PlayStation 4 via PSN; also available for PS3, XBLA, and PC
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: Compulsion Games
Release Date: 11/15/2013
Genre: 2D/3D Puzzle-platformer
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Game downloaded for free with PlayStation Plus membership

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.