Imagine the art style of BioShock Infinite with the story of a melodrama on Turner Classic Movies. Now imagine that the story is about half as long as it should be. That’s what you get when you play Contrast, the first game by developer Compulsion Games. Beneath its buggy, sometimes infuriating exterior lies an indie game with a bit of heart and ambiance, but the game seems a bit rushed.
Didi’s father, Johnny, is a bit a failure and Didi, her mom Kat, and Johnny know it. The story follows the story of Johnny trying to put his life back together and win back Kat through the eyes of Dawn, Didi’s imaginary friend. There’s not much more that can be said about what happens in the story without spoiling it, unfortunately. With the exception of Johnny and Didi, none of the characters are really that fleshed out. Johnny is voiced by Elias Toufexis of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and it’s easy to be sympathetic towards the character as he scrambles to try and keep things together. Didi is about as fleshed out as a child can be as she wishes her family was happily together, but the rest of the characters fall pretty flat, especially Didi’s mom Kat.
Gameplay is flat too, though a bit more literally. Throughout the game, players complete shadow-based platform puzzles by playing as Dawn. Dawn jumps around the 1920’s Parisian-style streets to complete objectives, but she also has the unique ability to jump in and out of shadows, leading to clever puzzles involving jumping on top of shadows, phasing out of the shadows into the physical world to land on a balcony, and then jumping back into a shadow to advance. The puzzles are pretty straightforward and aren’t too challenging. Some later puzzles require moving boxes and cannonballs around the map to push down buttons, but most of the puzzles are straight platforming with a bit of shadow jumping. I frequently found myself dashing past a tree only to get stuck in it, forcing me to restart the section. I also got stuck in a few walls, which forced me to restart entire sections, but puzzles are easy to solve once you figure out exactly you have to do. Unfortunately, the gimmick of shadows being the puzzles is a bit thin at best, and really felt more like it was a single mechanic in a much larger game. The most memorable gameplay aspect features some platforming in a shadow-puppet show that was very obviously influenced by Limbo. Unfortunately, that part too lasted too short a time.
While the gameplay falls a bit short, the art style is superb, with a stylized dream-world version of the city almost being its own character. The game could stand to be a bit more vibrant in color, but it’s hard to deny that the art style drips charm. The music further adds to this ambiance, with exclusive jazz music that fits the world and era playing at key points, though there wasn’t nearly enough of it during the story.
Only Didi and Dawn are actually rendered, with the shadows of all other characters cast onto the walls. I’m sure it could have symbolized how disconnected Didi is from her parents and the rest of the world, but the story’s ending dispels any of that imagery and leaves it a bit more literal than I would have liked it.
Contrast’s biggest weakness is that it’s simply too short. With the new console releases upon us, it seems pretty clear that the game was rushed to completion for the launch of the PlayStation 4, which launched the same day. The story carried the game far more than the gameplay ever did, and at a mere three hours including finding all the collectibles, the game is shorter than Limbo and Portal, making it fail to leave any lasting impression. The art style is superb and the music is memorable, but the actual graphics themselves leave a bit to be desired, with the game looking more like it was made a few years ago than in 2013. If you can get past the frustrating glitches and the short length of the game, you could find a fun afternoon distraction that holds a bit of charm. Just don’t expect to get very much replay value out of this.
You can buy Contrast or download the free demo here.