(Reviewed on the Playstation 4)
Contrast is brought to us by Compulsion Games and has already received a boost in publicity thanks to becoming a free Playstation 4 launch title due to the delay of Driveclub. It also received a number of pre-release convention awards from the likes of E3 and PAX.
At first glance, the game is likely to be (rather unfairly) compared to the critically-acclaimed fellow shadow-based platformer Limbo. However, Contrast is different in a number of ways, most notably in that the exploration of most of the game world is performed in a 3D environment. Traversing a heavily stylised 1920s art deco city, the player is placed in the stripy leggings of the glamorous Dawn, who appears on first impressions to be the imaginary friend of the game's primary protagonist, Didi.
The art style for the game is nothing short of gorgeous, and the transitions from the initially murky browns of the city's backstreets to the neon lit rows of clubs ensures there's a fair variety of colours before you. Given the game's reliance on shadows no area is ever over-lit, or indeed too dark to see, which is welcome given the propensity for many bigger releases to fall into these traps. The soundtrack flits effortlessly between whimsical fantasy, smooth bar jazz and carnival ditties. Always providing a suitable backdrop to wherever Dawn is adventuring through, the music is a real delight and I wish I'd known beforehand it was available in a Collector's Edition package.
The illuminated path
As you follow Didi through the city by night after she escapes from her bedroom, you'll assist her in helping her family with a series of tasks that result in successfully staging a circus in the city centre, and uncovering some of the hidden truths lying behind the curtain of comfort her mother has wrapped across their life. Throughout the game, Dawn remains completely mute and doesn't converse with Didi at all. This is a somewhat disappointing development, as the only glimpses you get into who Dawn is come in perhaps the last half an hour of gameplay through collectible documents and posters scattered around the various locations you find yourself in.
The sparse elaboration on the character you play as provides for a high level of disconnection between the player and Dawn. Without even an explanation of why this character is assisting Didi throughout, save for an incredibly brief few seconds of plot straight before the credits roll, you're almost left wondering why the game required Dawn as a character at all. If Didi had been the sole character and able to switch into the shadows to help out her family, very little else in the game would have needed to change save for those last few seconds of the ending cinematic. It feels as though the concept is being deliberately drawn out to foster a sequel in the future.
In terms of actual gameplay; after you've had a chance to explore them in 3D, most of the subsequent puzzles are then solved by shifting into a projected 2D plane based on the shadows of the objects around the nearby light sources. The core of the enjoyment gained from Contrast comes from these sections, where you combine traditional platform-jumping skills with the added aspect of working out when to dash through thinner shadows, or at what time to leap back into the real-world and interact with the objects there to alter the shadows being cast.
Shadow of a doubt
When these elements work it's easy to have fun with Contrast as a game with a novel idea with some wonderful set-pieces, one highlight being the ascent of a carousel at the circus via the moving shadows of the horses being cast on the walls of the courtyard it's situated in. At it's worst moments however the command to slip into the shadows can be somewhat temperamental and require exact precision, which can lead to numerous failed leaps over bottomless chasms on the simplest of scenery. Conversely, on more complicated backdrops you can find yourself slipping in too easily and end up in a position you weren't expecting to be in.
The controls are also a touch too sensitive, with no option currently available to adjust this in the game's settings. Whilst it's not enough to ruin the feel of playing the game, it feels as though a few of my failed jumps in the game could have been made if I hadn't been trying to compensate quite so much to counteract it. Thankfully a few of the bugs involving getting stuck in scenery or suddenly adopting a neutral outstretched- arms character model for no apparent reason appear to have been fixed by a patch that went live shortly before this review.
To sum up: Contrast is an interesting curiosity thanks to its core shadow-jumping gameplay mechanic. With only three main acts to the game, a short playing time and the abrupt nature of the ending, iI can't help but feel that this is only the first half of an overall story. Hopefully any possible sequel will be able to refine the platforming elements to avoid the moments of frustration found in this iteration, as well as fleshing out the otherwise absent personality of Dawn.
Contrast is available to purchase now on PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and Playstation 4.