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Review: Contrast

Contrast is a platforming game developed by Compulsion Games. It stars a mysterious girl named Dawn who can meld into shadows and move through them. She uses these abilities to help little Didi, whose family is a bit of a mess.

The Good

The Bad

When I first saw gameplay footage for Contrast I was excited because I could see the potential. As an adventure maniac, I could already envision complex puzzles using shadows and light, and while Contrast does deliver some of that, it doesn’t achieve its full potential.

Shadow puzzles mostly revolve around creating platforms to jump on or opening paths to previously closed-off areas. Near the end of the game you also get two or three instances of getting moving other objects through the environment using lights, such as carrying a box in a beam of light or using a clockwork mechanism’s shadow to lift a sphere to an upper floor. Some of the more ‘complex’ puzzles revolve around moving objects around a light source to change the shape of the shadows, but much like the previous set of puzzles, you only see a handful of them throughout the game.

Didi talking to her mother, just another disembodied shadow.

The problem isn’t the puzzles themselves, but the fact that with such a short game, they feel like prototypes of ideas that never got fully developed. Contrast also makes the mistake of locking some of your abilities until the plot requires you to have them, further limiting the type of puzzles available and the overall difficulty of the platforming. There also aren’t that many shadows to jump in, with only the puzzle related ones and those needed for the mostly optional collectible-hunt.

Contrast isn’t a challenging game in any way, and I’m sad to have seen so many box-moving puzzles, even if it’s very fun to meld into shadows carrying a big box. It also suffers from some uneven controls. It’s said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result; well, in Contrast it’s not insane. Very often I found myself performing the same jumps and getting completely different results. The most infuriating and frustrating ones where those cases when using the dash ability kicked me out of a shadow for no reason.

Sometimes shadowy characters not only advance the plot but also serve as platforming segments

The plot revolves around helping Didi fix her personal life, with a cabaret singer Mom and deadbeat all-around loser Dad, whom you spend most of the game helping so mobsters don’t kill him and his latest harebrained scheme pays out so Did can have a full family again. It’s not the most complex of plots but it works and it’s emotionally satisfying.

The problem is that because of the plot, the game revolves around following Didi around. It’s one game-long escort mission. I wouldn’t mind the mostly closed-off levels if there was a bit more freedom in exploration, but instead you go from Didi’s current predicament to the next. You’re her personal superhero/handyperson and there’s not much else to do. Even the collectible hunt is shallow, with none of them being more than a few feet away, almost as if they couldn’t conceive of you wanting to explore their world, which, to be perfectly honest, is quite intriguing.

You spend the entire game helping this little girl, but at least she’s useful!

The game takes place in a French town with a distinct Noir feel. It floats over nothingness, which you can see when like me, you make a bad jump and fall off, not that it happens that frequently. For much of the plot you don’t know much about this strange place, but near the end and with the help of the collectibles you begin to piece together the truth about this place where all inhabitants except Dawn and Didi are shadows on a wall. Up until the end of the game, you two are the only 3D characters in this shadow realm.

My greatest frustration with the gameplay was how Constrast constantly forced me into a walking speed when around the little girl. Dawn moves sluggishly when not running.

Posters and billboards like these are very Noir-esque!

Speaking of our heroine, she’s the least developed character in entertainment. Hidden collectibles tell a bit of her story and fill out the gaps in the plot and in-game universe, but no effort is made in even giving Dawn a voice. She’s completely blank, a mindless minion to this very energetic little girl. I understand that part of the point is to make you wonder if she’s an imaginary friend, but even so, her lack of personality makes immersion very difficult, as you essentially control a mannequin.

The environments are beautiful and seem straight out of a 1920’s French movie, combined with locations and elements you’d expect from classic Noir films. The use of shadows for atmosphere and to portray characters and their stories is absolutely brilliant. The music itself helps anchor you in this strange French Noir town and the voice acting is outstanding, giving personalities and life to these disembodied shadows.

One of the VERY few shadow perspective puzzles. I wish there had been more.

In the end, while Contrast does deliver a satisfying if short personal tale, it fails to live up to its gameplay potential, making this feel more like a prototype of the different concepts than a full game; and if so, I can only hope there’s a continuation. The world and in-universe concepts are fascinating, but much like the gameplay and the main character, they’re merely introduced but never fully fleshed out.

The Mental Attic Score: Wait for a Sale. It’s enjoyable but there’s simply not enough.

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