Contrast is a short game. It is, however, a wonderfully atmospheric game which combines a 2D and 3D puzzle solving in a way which I never seen in any other videogame, and it does so in such a stylish manner that looks like at home in the 1920’s.
But that doesn’t make the game any longer; I took my time trying to collect all of the collectables, and still finished it all in less than 3 hours. If you are looking for a way to spend the weekend, you may want to look elsewhere. If that doesn’t bother you, and you’re just looking for a way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon, Contrast may just be the game for you.
You play as Dawn – a slender young woman who looks like she belongs in the cabaret, and who fits seamlessly into this 20’s themed world of singers, dancers, glitz, gangsters and family feuds. Dawn is
also Didi’s “imaginary friend”, and Didi is the only physical person you meet during the game. There are other characters, and you do interact with them in a way – but they can’t see you, and you can only see their shadows. Dawn doesn’t speak to Didi, playing instead the silent protagonist. Didi talks to you constantly throughout the story, treating you as a big sister/best friend, and exclaiming between levels that she hasn’t seen you in however many weeks, and that you both have places to be, before excitedly scurrying through an open window. While you’re never told the exact nature of their relationship, you get a real feel that Didi and Dawn have a connection, which would have been fascinating to explore had Contrast been open to the idea of doing so. But as previously mentioned, Contrast is a very short game, so there isn’t a lot of room to develop their relationship.
You spend your time in Contrast doing everything Didi asks. All she wants is to be like her mom when she grows up, and to have her daddy come home while she’s doing the growing up part. Didi is a child who just wants to put her family back together. Children are a rarely-used plot mechanic in games aimed at adults, so when it’s done right, it’s worth pointing out. Contrast nailed the connection between the player and an NPC child in the same way that Telltale Games did with The Walking Dead .
By helping Dawn, you will find yourself breaking into buildings and infiltrating offices to either steal or fix items which will help her daddy put a job together, or simply to help Dawn eavesdrop on a conversation between her parents. How Dawn helps Didi is perhaps the most intriguing part of the game. If you take the time to collect the scattered paraphernalia which piece together Contrast’s back-story, you will see that Didi talks to an imaginary friend, much to the concern of the child protection services. This isn’t mentioned outright in the script, and there is little-to-no exposition in the game besides the few collectables that exist to explain anything besides the here and now. If you do decide to play Contrast, I strongly recommend you take the time to read through these collectables as you find them.
Considering your ability to manipulate objects in the real world, Dawn isn’t exactly imaginary; instead she’s a being with the ability to switch between the worlds of the living and the shadows. In the real world, despite being invisible to the rest of the world, Dawn casts a shadow. In the shadow world, Dawn simply is the shadow. As an example of how this works as a mechanic, let’s say you want to get from balcony A to balcony B, and all there is between the two is a 12ft gap and the shadow of a bicycle wheel from way off in the foreground. If you approach the wall next to balcony A, you’ll project your shadow on the wall. You can then switch worlds and become a shadow, walking across the bridge which the shadow wheel has created, allowing you to transform back into a human on balcony B. As the game progresses, you unlock the ability to bring objects in and out of the shadow world with you, allowing for some really intriguing puzzles to throw yourself at. It’s a genuine shame that Contrast doesn’t live up to its potential in this respect; at just under three hours there isn’t enough time to fully capitalize on the mechanics they created. There simply aren’t enough puzzles making use of this concept. It would have been great to explore how Didi met Dawn, or simply to have more of an opportunity to explore the world for collectables. Instead, the game is short, and incredibly linear. If you deviate from the prescribed path, you fall into oblivion.
All of these things combine to make Contrast feel a little bit rushed. There is a fair amount of story in the three hours you play, but becasue there’s no exposition, that’s all there is. Too much exposition is a crime – anyone can tell you that – but when the opposite is also true in that you need some exposition to fully tell a story. Sadly, there’s also very little use of the shadow realm getting between levels – you simply run up the street to the next building. Adding in extra puzzles between levels could have extended playtime in an interesting way. Instead, Contrast opted for the easy option.
The other area which Contrast falls down on is that it’s got a fair few bugs and the controls are pretty sloppy. Manipulation of light and shadows is a your main gameplay mechanic through the linear environment that is Contrast, so when you can’t complete a puzzle because the item you’re using to cast a shadow randomly locks in the wrong place, all you find is frustration. The only saving grace at times like that is that between the beautifully crafted atmosphere and lovely soundtrack, which includes the dulcet tones of Didi’s mom, replaying buggy areas is slightly less aggravating than it normally would be. As for the controls, they simply aren’t as tight as you’d hope; jumping can be tricky when Dawn refuses to jump in the right way, and switching in and out of the shadow world can be finicky at times. This is particularly infuriating considering this is a puzzle platformer where you continuously switch between the two worlds.
Contrast still comes highly recommended, however. The story may not be anything new and exciting, but it is heart-warming nonetheless, if a little dark in places. As an older sibling, there’s little I wouldn’t do for my younger sisters, and when your sister-figure in a game wants you to help her put her family back together, it tugs on all of the feels.
The main thing that Contrast has to offer is that it’s unique. If you like games which are a bit different, like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons or Limbo, then Contrast may just hold the level of intrigue that you’re looking for – just be wary of spending more than $7/ £5 on a game that you’ll finish before dinner.