Contrast is the rare game that prioritizes story to the detriment of gameplay.
ContrastPublisher: Focus Home Interactive
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PC
Developer: Compulsion Games
Release Date: 2013-11-15
Contrast is the rare game that prioritizes story to the detriment of gameplay. That imbalance is particularly noticeable here because both have an obvious arc, but the story arc ends just as the gameplay arc is starting to get interesting. The former very obviously cuts off the latter. While the story is compelling, the puzzles never advance beyond the intermediate stage. What seems on paper to be a brain-busting puzzle concept is instead pretty straightforward and barely challenging.
You play as Dawn, the not-quite-imaginary friend of Didi, a little girl from a broken home. Dawn can become a shadow at will, “shifting” into walls so that her physical body disappears and all that remains is her shadow. With some spotlights and a couple moving objects, Dawn can manipulate the 3D world in order to create shadow platforms to inaccessible areas. It’s a clever concept. Contrast is a puzzle-platformer in which you puzzle in 3D and jump around in 2D. As a puzzle concept, this would seem to promise some great brain twisting uses of shadow and light, and as a platformer concept, it seems like a delightful mixing of genres. However, Contrast doesn’t live up to the promise of its concept.
The game is split into three acts. The first act is quite easy as the game tutorializes everything. The second act advances some concepts, but the puzzling and platforming remain largely separate. There’s a whole section that has you playing the princess in a shadow play, and while it’s a great bit of platforming on its own, it’s disappointing that it completely ignores the 3D world. When the two dimensions do cross over, the puzzles aren’t all that more complicated than they were in Act 1. Contrast finally starts to come into its own in the last act as you manipulate the lights and clockwork displays of a museum to form complex moving platforms.
But then the story ends. It reaches a natural stopping point just as the mechanics begin to flourish. That puts a lot of pressure on the story to carry the entire experience, and while it comes close, it loses focus at the end.
The game world is a very empty place. Dawn and Didi are the only characters with a physical presence. The rest of the cast only appear as shadows. Even as Didi’s mother hugs and kisses her goodnight, we only see the interaction silhouetted against the wall. Without the shadows, Didi looks to be talking to herself and tucking herself in for the night.
It’s a great way of visualizing Didi’s loneliness. Her father has been kicked out of the house and her mother leaves every night to sing at a night club. Didi desperately wants to bring her family together, and most of your objectives throughout the game revolve around doing just that. Didi wants to make her family real again because all she sees now are (literal) shadows of its former self. Didi can come across as oddly optimistic considering her circumstance since she always excitedly gives you instructions, but that’s because she’s excited to get her family back together. Through the level design and art, we see the loneliness behind her optimism; her imaginary friend is more real to her than her mother and father.
In this way, the puzzle concept is a brilliant reflection of the themes, and Contrast could have been one of the most thematically cohesive games I've ever played... if it didn’t start to take itself so literally in the end. The gameplay works better as a metaphor than as a plot device. The story eventually acknowledges the shadow world as an actual place, and the compelling family drama is overtaken by sci-fi elements; the complex emotions replaced by complex plotting.
Contrast is still enjoyable, but it has such obvious potential for greatness it’s hard not to be disappointed by “enjoyable.”