Many of the PS4’s launch titles have a very bright, and colorful look to them. Battlefield 4 and Killzone: Shadow Fall are both surprisingly vibrant when looked upon next to other titles of their genre, and Need for Speed: Rivals is similarly radiant. So it would seem that it’s up to Contrast to deliver a darker experience; both visually, and tonally. It definitely delivers the former, but falls short in the latter spectrum.
Contrast’s story primarily revolves around Didi, a young girl living in an odd, dream-like variant of early 20th century Paris. Didi’s parents are separated. While her father is trying his hardest (but often fails) to make things work, Didi’s mother isn’t so keen on the idea of bringing the family back together. In the shoes of the young girl’s supposed imaginary friend — an acrobat named Dawn — it’s your job to help Didi reunite the family; through some unorthodox methods, no less. Then again, nothing is really orthodox about the world of Contrast. While Didi is quite tangibly human, her parents, and most everyone else, can only be seen on brightly-lit walls as shadows.
Luckily, Dawn has the unique ability switch between being human as we know it, and a shadow person. The entire setting of the game is quite mysterious and, unfortunately, not much light is ever shed on it (no pun intended). But one thing’s for sure: it inspires one heck of a gimmick. While what you’re doing with the mechanics isn’t always particularly interesting, the seamless real-time transition between a somewhat traditional 3D platformer to a 2D platformer is striking both visually and technically. Thanks to the game’s real-time lighting, you’ll often find yourself moving light sources around within the environment to organize shadows in the fashion needed to let you reach whatever your goal is. It’s a novel idea and, luckily, the game is short enough that the gimmick doesn’t grow tiring.
But after twenty or so years of use, box-puzzles have grown tired; and they’re relatively abundant in Contrast. There are, however, a few twists to the cliché. Dawn can bring objects (mostly boxes) with her into what we’ll call “the shadow-realm”; that fact alone, admittedly, does breath a bit of life into the often scoffed-at puzzle-type. So the box-puzzles aren’t unbearable, but some of Contrast’s more creative puzzles are proof that the development team is more than capable of crafting clever conundrums. As a result — although they aren’t entirely unoriginal — the box-puzzles feel like filler when the other puzzle-types are infinitely more interesting.
Contrast’s gameplay is mostly sound; movement feels a tad wonky, the speed and height with which you jump is a bit jarring. Long story short: it isn’t great, but it works. That said, the game’s primary mechanic, switching from a person to a shadow, should be interesting enough to compel most anyone to keep moving forward, and eventually grow accustomed to the somewhat odd movement.
There’s also something charmingly old-school about Contrast. Rather than offering players an idea of which direction they should be headed in to complete their objective, the game leaves you to explore the world on your own. Thankfully, this never proves frustrating because, although it’s pretty open, the game’s environment isn’t awfully large. It’ll take a bit of moseying around, but you’ll always end up where you’re supposed to. It’s just small enough to keep you from veering too far off course, but just large enough to inform an exciting sense of exploration.
I also found my time with the game littered with non-game-breaking but thoroughly distracting bugs. At times I’d be snatched out of shadow-mode for no apparent reason, or in regular mode I’d quite randomly be sent launching into the sky.
Call me a conspirator, but it almost feels as if at some point during development Contrast’s story took on a some dramatic changes. This is, of course, all speculative. But it’s almost as if the game’s story was written by someone who was unaware of its dark, eerie tone. Sure, the subject of parental separation isn’t a pleasant one; but even that isn’t explored in a way that hits the same notes as the atmosphere the game’s environment conveys.
It’s far from perfect, that much is certain. But despite the game’s bugs, its somewhat tonally divorced story, and slightly wonky feel, Contrast is still pretty easily recommendable. It’s main hook is impressive to say the least; and, although it’s never really acknowledged by the story, the game does deliver an eerie atmosphere that’s absolutely worth checking out.
Version Reviewed: PS4