UPDATE: This review has been updated with an additional section to deliver impressions of the belated Xbox One release.
Does influence exist in the reality that we can’t see?
Such is the question posed by Contrast, a Canadian-made indie game that takes place in 1920’s Paris. Taking the role of a young girl’s imaginary friend, players simultaneously move between the three-dimensional tangible world and the two-dimensional shadows cast on the walls, with the touch of a button. A hybrid of puzzle-platformer and story-driven adventure, Contrast immediately stands apart with its breathtaking setting, packed with no shortage of good ideas.
However, in striving to be such a potent interactive narrative, much like Rain or Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons from earlier in the year, Contrast also seems to place gameplay second to its artistic vision. The obstacles and puzzles are very straightforward, many of the clever mechanics don’t feel like they achieve their true potential, and even amassing every trophy/achievement in your first playthrough won’t take you longer than four or five hours before the credits roll.
While Contrast commands a hefty, unflinching $14.99 price at this point to download for PC, Xbox 360 or PS3, PS4 owners with a PlayStation Plus membership can currently download the game for free, right alongside Resogun. As a free offering, Contrast will intrigue and amuse early PS4 adopters with a taste for artistic gameplay and narrative while it lasts. Without a PlayStation Plus membership and on its other platforms however, the high price and very short, easy final product make Contrast much more difficult to recommend over better competing art house games.
If Contrast has one effective way to rope you in, it’s the captivating visual design. The fantastical recreation of Paris entices you with its clever light and shadow play, simultaneously ominous and playful. The visual design unfolds like Martin Scorsese’s beloved 3D adventure movie, Hugo,if it were instead directed by Tim Burton, with its exaggerated character models and eerily real, yet undeniably surreal landscapes.
Some of the ways that Contrast makes use of light-and-shadow effects are undeniably brilliant. Since your player character, Dawn does not exist in the so-called ‘real world’, you see pivotal story scenes play out with cast shadows on lit walls. Pivotal scenes of drama, heartbreak and optimism are never properly seen through the eyes of Didi, Dawn’s child companion. Instead, you’re merely left to speculate as only shadows and voices fill you in on certain parts of the story, leaving the rest to your imagination. It’s quite creative, and it’s another inspired way to have a game’s visuals tell much of the story.
Also plenty appealing are the clever ways that you’ll use shadows to create paths ahead. By re-positioning spotlights, activating beacons and shifting objects around in streams of light, you’ll potentially have the means to climb to high balconies, sneak across treacherous pathways and even undertake some clever platforming challenges when you shift into shadow, such as using the shadows of a carousel’s horses to make it across a pit. Like Rain, the visuals are a key device that serve gameplay and storytelling alike, and the result really is impressive!
Obviously, Contrast’s visuals are at their best on PC and PS4 as well. The Xbox 360 and PS3 editions look a bit blockier and have less potent lighting and colouring definition, though otherwise run reasonably well. The PS4 edition meanwhile effortlessly compares to the PC edition on optimized settings, with more seamless lighting effects and texture/model detail, though Contrast’s PS4 build also seems to suffer from framerate drops and other such technical hiccups quite easily in some places, giving you the sense that it’s less optimized to the hardware. It’s not common or intrusive enough to be a dealbreaker, especially when PS4 owners with PlayStation Plus can get the game for free, but you’ll have the best blend of visual fidelity and performance stability if you’re playing on PC.
Appropriately, most of Contrast’s audio consists of soft jazz and 1920’s cabaret tunes. It fits the 1920’s setting well, even if most of the music largely stays in the background, letting the graphics do most of the talking for the game. Even the sound effects are very soft and understated, as if the entire game is being performed with a child’s touch.
In fact, at times, Contrast is almost strangely quiet. You may wonder if certain sound bytes are missing in a few cutscenes, and whether something may be wrong with your TV speakers, given that the sound mixing can sometimes feel a bit off. Like the occasional performance hiccups on PS4, it’s certainly not a dealbreaker, but it is noticeable, and can sometimes affect the immersion in what’s otherwise a very captivating game.
Fortunately, the voice acting picks up the slack, being energetic and fully embracing the game’s peppy, vintage dialogue. Some of the line delivery still feels tactful and soft, even with the zippy, theatrical style of speaking, but it helps to sell the dramatic, yet playful presentation of Contrast. If anyone is a standout however, it’s Didi, who speaks her lines with an incredible, carefree innocence that consistently motivates you forward. Dawn may be a silent protagonist, but this helps to remind the player of their place as an unseen spectator to the world that only Didi is supposed to inhabit.
There’s very little power behind Contrast’s almost strangely peaceful audio, but this makes it an easy game to play if you just want to relax too.
When Contrast shines, it really shines! There are certain sections of the gameplay that feel truly inspired and brilliant. The best puzzles incorporate both real-world objects and light-and-shadow play alike, taking seemingly mundane objects in the environment and using them creatively to create clever paths forward in the two-dimensional shadowscape. Even then, there are sections where you have to make Dawn become a shadow and bounce around the cast shadows of two arguing or fighting characters in Didi’s world so you can proceed ahead. These ideas are very creative, and serve as the best use of Contrast’s otherwise simplistic set of play mechanics.
This is why it’s disappointing when several sections just incorporate simple box and switch puzzles, the kind we’ve seen in so many video games already. Sure, sometimes you have to phase a box in and out of the shadows, but you’ll still just end up weighing down the same switch at the end of some straightforward path. It’s unfulfilling, and it will make you crave the more clever gameplay sections that make more inspired use of the light-and-shadow mechanics.
It’s a shame that Contrast never applies its mechanics beyond the same simplistic solutions that are presented even from the very start of the game. Even many of the collectibles and hidden Luminaries, items that you collect and use to power up certain broken machines, are often hidden in plain sight and don’t take much effort to amass. On the bright side, this means that casual and less skilled players won’t have trouble playing through Contrast, but more hardcore players who want a game that will challenge them and last longer than a few hours will certainly be left wanting, even with so many great, albeit unfulfilled gameplay ideas that Contrast brings to the table.
Contrast is a little fantastical and a little dream-like, telling a story that incorporates broken families, mobsters and the conflict of illusion vs. reality. Telling all of its most pivotal scenes in shadows, players provide the unseen hand that guides Didi on her quest to re-unite her parents and solve their respective problems, with Daddy being in deep with the wrong people, and Mommy forced to make ends meet working late nights as a Cabaret singer and showgirl at the local jazz club.
In many respects, Contrast is much more Didi’s story than Dawn’s, even though it’s Dawn that you’ll be playing as. As an apparent ‘imaginary friend’, Dawn is mostly left to interpret the events around her in Didi’s world, only able to directly contribute to proceedings by opening paths forward for Didi, as well as solving some lighting issues that will fix dire situations in the world of Contrast. It happens more often than you might think over the course of gameplay.
There’s hints of a deep, mature world all around you, but it’s never seen through the eyes of the naive, loveably optimistic Didi, who just runs past strip joints and mob meet-ups without even noticing them. The player will notice them, silently aware of the proper stakes behind what’s going on, but, predictably, Didi never puts things together to that degree. It’s easy to see that Contrast is effectively in service to its proper main character, but doesn’t bog down the game’s charm or sense of wonder by dwelling on mature content that it doesn’t need to. There’s even a scolding trophy/achievement that you can ‘earn’ by trying to abandon Didi to run into a peep show. It’s pretty clever!
The only point where Contrast’s otherwise intriguing story trips up a bit is in the ending. Oh yes, it’s a happy, fulfilling ending for Didi and her family, but the twist explanation behind Dawn’s existence, with her being a real person all along, just feels odd and forced, while also not really solving many of the conflicts that were raised in the beginning portions. It’s nice that Contrast doesn’t spoil the mood with a needlessly depressing conclusion, but there is a slight lack of resolution you’ll feel when the credits roll as well.
THE XBOX ONE VERSION
Contrast saw a belated release on Xbox One in June of 2014, as a selection for the ID@Xbox indie game development program. It’s an upgraded version of the Xbox Live Arcade build available for Xbox 360, with improved resolution that makes it pretty well identical in visual quality to the PS4 version. Some of the bugs and physics issues that were particularly prevalent in the PS4 version have also been cleaned up considerably on Xbox One, which presents an especially smooth, polished version of Contrast overall.
With that said however, it’s still the same game, with the same issues on Microsoft’s next-gen console. The achievement values are increased on Xbox One, so that Contrast now offers a full 1,000 Gamerpoints instead of just 400 like on Xbox 360, but along with GameDVR support, that’s the only element of the game that’s been changed from the Xbox Live Arcade version.
Contrast is worth picking up on sale for achievement hunters especially, since it’s an easy 1,000 Gamerpoints to amass for Xbox One owners. Still, it’s really not worth the double-dip if you already bought Contrast on Xbox 360, or one of its other platforms for that matter.
Contrast is a solid debut effort for fledgling Montreal-based indie developer, Compulsion Games. It’s not perfect, and it feels a little too simplistic and short to fully satisfy in the end, but the developer itself shows plenty of potential between some really inspired play mechanics, arresting visuals and a breezy, but ultimately heartfelt and uplifting storyline.
Like Resogun, Contrast gets around its otherwise beefy $14.99 price tag if you’re a PlayStation Plus member with a PS4, awarding you the game for free. If you do have a PS4 and don’t mind relaxing with a story-based art house game every so often, even if it will only last you about four or five hours, including attaining the simple roster of bronze-only trophies, then Contrast is worth a look, even if it will intrigue moreso than impress. As a next-gen PlayStation Store game however, its added beauty and immersion comes at a price, since you’ll be dealing with more slowdown and environmental glitches than the other three versions.
Contrast predictably isn’t quite as pretty or as captivating on Xbox 360 and PS3 as it is on PC and PS4, especially since both the Xbox 360’s and PS3’s digital game channels have several games along these same lines available on them already, with deeper designs to boot. Contrast is still worth checking out for art house gamers when or if it goes on sale though, even merely as a light snack between deeper, more rewarding games.
This is especially true on PC, where Contrast is most likely to be part of a Steam sale at some point. On optimized PC settings, Contrast delivers the impressive beauty of the PS4 build without those technical hiccups that are otherwise a nuisance on Sony’s next-gen console, potentially making Contrast most recommendable off of Steam if you can’t take advantage of the PS4 offering it as a PlayStation Plus freebie.
It’s fair to say that Contrast doesn’t consistently maintain the height of its potential, but even if it’s another art house game that’s all too fleeting and simple, its highlight moments will enchant and amuse you as you find a new way to re-interpret the City of Lights.
Contrast is undeniably creative and visually captivating, but suffers as a gameplay experience due to its short, lightweight final product. It's a bit uneven, but entertains well enough for fans of art house gaming, especially if you can score it as a PlayStation Plus freebie on PS4!
The Good Stuff
Creative light and shadow mechanics
Beautiful, captivating 1920s Paris
Intriguing, uplifting story
The Not-so-Good Stuff
Simplistic gameplay; disappointingly so
Story conclusion is a little baffling, unfulfilling