Contrast ReviewJoe Shaffer
When I fired up Contrast before my last session with it, my heart grew heavy. Soulful, somber notes blared from my speakers, reminding me just how lovely the game can be. Realizing that, my heart grew heavier, and continued to gain in weight as I entered the game's world and took in its breathtaking sights. The protagonist Dawn stood amidst a quiet Depression-era town, built of earthy tones and shaded alleyways. Myriad shadows played on the walls, some of which were cast by miscellany scattered about the sleepy city streets. Others, though, were manifestations of a troubled past: of late night arguments, shady deals, child neglect, and irresponsibility. All of these scenes play out in a style similar to film noir, and show us some of the worrisome elements of human nature. What's beautiful about these scenes is that they lay bare the flawed aspects of the game's cast of characters. That itself becomes more touching when the game introduces Didi: a girl who so loves these imperfect people that she would labor to put right their wrongs, with the help of Dawn.
So yeah, you could say that the finished product is so gorgeous that it hurts. For although Contrast is tasteful, aurally moving, and heartwarming in terms of narrative, its interactive elements are unfortunately lacking.
Conceptually, Contrast sounds like a fantastic experience. As Dawn, you aid Didi in fixing her parents' broken lives (mostly her father's). You mainly achieve this by shifting into walls and becoming a shadow. From there the game essentially transforms from a 3D adventure into a 2D platformer, in which the shadows of random objects become platforms: sloped masses become ramps, crates can give you a little boost, and items in motion can carry you across spacious pits.
What's neat about this feature is that the objects found in the 3D domain generate the platforms in the 2D realm. For instance, there's one scene where you must gain access to a balcony using shadows created by horses on a carousel. With the horses in motion, they can carry you to your destination, provided that you don't run afoul of any impeding shadows cast by surrounding objects. Surmounting such an obstacle would require you to utilize Dawn's dash technique, which allows her to pass through solid objects. Of course, you'll want to take care not to conclude a dash where there is no light, lest Dawn should plummet. Quite a few segments also require you to tinker with the 3D environment in order to create adequate platforms for solving puzzles. For example, a few puzzles involve moving a projector on a cart in order alter the size and position of various shadows, thereby creating proper stepping stones and ersatz staircases that allow you to reach goals.
Sadly, though the game shows great promise, it doesn't make the most of its core concepts. Although Contrast definitely stands out in terms of presentation, its multitude of platforming events are mostly banal. There are a few scenes that are fairly tricky, like one that requires rotating planets in a planetarium so as to create an awkwardly shaped ramp. However, most of the platforming segments involve rudimentary leaps that require little to no skill to clear. Never mind that the platforms are sometimes intertwined with the narrative and take on the form of the game's characters, or aid slightly in telling the story. Dull platforming is still dull platforming, no matter how you dress it up.
I wish I could say that the puzzles that inhabit the 3D environments are more engaging, but most are simplistic. What the game expects of you is usually pretty obvious, although there are some puzzles that can be real brain teasers. There's one, for example, that requires you to move a box up to a ledge. It took me a few attempts to surmount this puzzle. I had to shine a light on a nearby brick wall, shift the box into the shadow realm and leave it there, then move the light such that it carried the box up to the platform. Of course, there was a little more to the puzzle, but I don't want to spoil that...
I find that puzzles in any video game are at their best when they're mentally stimulating and challenging, which unfortunately isn't the case with most of Contrast's puzzles. A few of them revolve around transporting items (read: crates) from one point to another, with pathways that are all too conspicuous. Most of the puzzles that involve repositioning light sources or objects can be easily solved by constantly asking yourself, "Will this position/configuration do?" It's usually quite apparent when the answer becomes yes.
Mediocre platforming and puzzling isn't the worst of Contrast's flaws, though, as the PC version also has its share of bugs. For instance, in my playthrough there were several occasions in which I collided with objects, like pipes and umbrellas, and found myself stuck. Most of the time, I had to run in circles, dash, or repeatedly jump in order to become "unstuck," but there were a couple of times that I had to restart from the checkpoint. There are also a few occasions in which Dawn sometimes slips off of platforms, like one event in which you must ride an enlarged shadow's foot in order to reach a lofty platform. The problem is that Dawn doesn't always remain on the foot, and slides off fairly often. However, she manages to stay put about one-third of the time, which calls to question the consistency of the game's physics.
I'm not at all saying that Contrast is a terrible game. Sure, there's more style than substance, but at least the style is pleasing. The substance, on the other hand, isn't. Some players will definitely enjoy the game, but gamers who are looking for challenging puzzles and platforming scenarios may not be as thrilled with this title. Contrast truly is a beautiful game; it's just not all that entertaining to play.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.