Contrast features a young girl Didi and her friend Dawn… and essentially nobody else. It takes place in a half-built and empty world where you see all the other characters, such as Didi’s family, as shadows on the wall. Dawn has the unique ability to become a shadow herself and interact with other shadows as though they were solid. This idea is part of why Contrast had me so excited. In reality, it was one of only 3 among the PlayStation 4’s launch lineup that really had me excited.
Sony opening up with a unique and relatively low-budget platformer as one of their ‘star’ launch titles is a bold move, and one I respect. And teasers and trailers painted a truly unique picture, both visually and mechanically, that raised my hopes very high for this game. At the same time, a launch title always comes along with the fear that games will be rushed, buggy, or mechanically flawed. The real question is… will it live up to my hopes, or make true my fears?
Setting the Stage
This game’s best asset is its setting. It is set in this incomplete world that is taken right out of the burlesque era. You have the gangsters, the shady deals, the old-style magicians, the clubs, etc. It is a really fascinating period piece, and while it does take place in a very incomplete world – literally speaking, of course – this is an era gaming doesn’t often venture into and I’m glad to see it.
Sadly, the art style isn’t done justice by the graphical fidelity. There are awkward animations, strange clipping issues, and other problems that are made so obvious by how exceptional the art style is.
And no, I don’t mean anything risqué by that. Quite simply, Didi talks too much. You play as Dawn and you’re perpetually accompanying this little girl and she just won’t shut up. The fact that she’s constantly talking wouldn’t be so bad if it was harmless, if it was interesting chatter that expanded and built upon the foundations of the world… unfortunately it’s not. Not only is it boring and bland(and strangely restrictive as she’ll tell you off for leaving ‘the path’ to find secrets), but it solves the puzzles for you. She is a walking tutorial, and it is exceedingly annoying. The game isn’t that long to begin with, and having nearly every puzzle feel like a tutorial thanks to Didi is a huge disappointment. Oh, and the voice they used for Didi? Obnoxious and annoying.
The story of this game is told through a combination of Didi randomly explaining things to you and scenes that take place in the shadows on the wall. I really love the latter portion of this, although the former may not be such a problem if Didi weren’t so obnoxious. The sad part is that while the storytelling is fascinating, the story itself is both predictable and disappointing. I can’t say much about the story without spoiling the entire thing… but our little guide has parent issues, and for good reason.
The really uncanny aspect is that the game doesn’t seem sure whether it knows you exist. Most of the time they act like Dawn just isn’t there, but once in a while random characters talk to you in strange ways. One notable example is in one of the first levels, where a singer is talking directly to you telling you to fix the lights. It breaks the logic of the world, and it just seems very strange.
This is where the game really falls short. The game is ostensibly a platformer. Platformers live and die by tight and accurate mechanics. A game like Mario, a game like Rayman… they have predictable and accurate mechanics – you know precisely what will happen when you push a button. This game, not so much. Jumping is unreliable, climbing – which is accomplished by jumping – is even worse, and even the unique shadow mechanics are kind of awkward and unreliable. If you can’t get these basics right, I’m sorry… you can’t do a platformer.
Like every platformer, the mechanics slightly evolve over the course of the game – although in this case it’s more a matter of functionality not having a point before they show you how to do it than it not being there. You can always phase into shadows while carrying a box, but there’s never a reason to do so until you reach the ghost ship attraction. And there’s rarely a reason to do so again afterwards. It just enhances the feeling that this whole thing is a tutorial. And it never makes you feel like you’ve progressed in any way.
The game features a wide array of collectibles, most of which are fairly obvious. This is par for the course, but I really like some of the side-puzzles used for the collectibles. You find these objects you can interact with to cause some of the story scenes to replay from a different angle on a nearby wall which you can then use as platforms for accessing other areas. It’s a very intriguing mechanic, and it really plays up the unique aspects of the game. Additionally, the most interesting part of the story – the history of Dawn – is told almost exclusively through some of these collectibles so if you aren’t actually reading the flyers, pamphlets, and letters you pick up you’re actually missing the most interesting element of the game’s story. This is a somewhat daring move, but I like it. All too often these collectibles are completely tangential, so it is nice to see a game like this or Rain that is willing to really reward the collectors with more than just a trophy or achievement.
I also wanted to give a shout out to the very final level of this game. It was the one and only place where you weren’t left feeling as though Didi was calling the shots. It was a fairly interesting level, and I had a lot of fun trying to figure out how to piece all the mechanics together. And the pinnacle of this level essentially retells the entire story to you again in the most fascinating and intriguing way, and it creates a fitting crescendo for the game.
Contrast is a strange beast. In a way, it lived up to my hopes. It was interesting, the unique setting certainly played out. But it also far surpassed my fears. The controls were awkward, it was glitchy, and it felt way too much like a 3 hour tutorial. It isn’t that there’s nothing good about this game… I think if it hadn’t been pressed to be a launch title they’d have been able to polish the experience and make something fantastic. Something new. But they were, and it shows all too well.