System(s): PC. Also Available for PS4, PS3, and Xbox 360
Release Date: November 15, 2013
Publisher (Developer): Focus Home Interactive (Compulsion Games)
ESRB Rating: “Teen” for Fantasy Violence and Suggestive Themes
I admit it, I’m a sucker for the old stylings of the early 1900s. Whether that be the art-deco dystopia of Bioshock‘s Rapture, or the sci-fi jazz age stylings of Skullgirls, there is monochrome place in my heart for the nostalgic art styles of the days of old, and at first glance, Contrast seems to fill that place quite nicely.
When I first saw the noir-style trailer video for Contrast, I immediately wanted to sink my teeth into it. The game comes from newcomer Compulsion Games, a Canadian developer based in Montreal. Contrast will be their first game, and notably, one of the first games to be out for the Playstation 4. With not one, but two first impressions on the line, will Contrast prove to be illuminating?
One Night Only
Contrast tells the story of a little adopted girl named Didi, who sneaks out at night to see her mother at the cabaret. Her escapade takes a turn for the worst when she finds out that her circus-leading father is in trouble with a couple of gangsters, which turns Didi’s little adventure into a journey through an urban landscape, trying to save her father, his circus, and their broken family in the process. You play as Didi’s imaginary friend Dawn, an acrobat with the ability to merge into the shadows. She can climb to areas out of reach, as well as place objects in the shadows, allowing them to be moved within the light of a spotlight.
All the world’s a stage…
As Dawn, you help Didi get through the city by traveling through both the shadows and the real world. The “real world” in Contrast is a half-imagined cityscape – part reality, and part imaginary. Lighted marquees shine like beacons in the dark, beckoning you to where the next objective is. Areas around this world are not roped off by invisible walls or impassable buildings, but by streets ending in vast, star-filled space where the roads crumble and collapse into an infinite void.
The city, while beautiful and full of lights and lively music, is completely empty. Didi and Dawn are the only solid characters in the entire game, and the rest of the game’s characters exist in shadow. They only exist in cut scenes when a particularly bright spotlight lights up the area.
The shadow characters in Contrast lead to some visually interesting scenes in two dimensions. An example of this is when Didi confronts an authority figure later in the game. The figure casts a longer shadow than Didi’s, which really says a lot about Didi’s place in the world. The lack of other characters allows you to pay more attention the more subtle things during the cutscenes.
These cutscenes would be excellent if the writing wasn’t so sloppy. Contrast manages to pull me in with an intriguing art style and brilliant premise, but the stilted, expository dialog constantly pushed me out of the experience.
Didi is a good example of this. Despite being the only “real” character you encounter, she manages to be as two dimensional as a shadow. Many of Didi’s lines are instructions, exposition dumps and orders like, “Help me get to point A.” She also frequently states the obvious, such as saying, “Oh no, it’s an eviction notice!” when you are staring at a piece of paper that has marked in big red letters, “EVICTION NOTICE”.
I think the first humanizing moment for Didi comes halfway through the game where she sits at a carousel that you’re supposed to use to platform across in the shadows. When you approach Didi’s shadow, She gives off a quick “Sorry”, and leans down so you can jump upon her shadow. It’s little moments like these that would’ve made me felt more like an imaginary friend rather than an imaginary babysitter. I really wished that Compulsion could have focused a little bit more on the dialog for the character I will be with about 90% of the time. You know, the character that they made an effort to create a model for.
There are some gems of dialog between Johnny and Kat, Didi’s adoptive parents. The dialog between them is a little more fleshed out, and felt at home within the game’s noir theme. But sometimes I felt that Kat is almost a bit too willing to forgive Johnny for every time he screws up. Given that the overall length of the game clocks in at about three hours, I could understand why they wouldn’t want to draw something like that out, but I’ve seen games less than two hours manage to run a gamut of emotions without feeling rushed.
Story also comes in the form of collectibles, which, much like Bioshock’s audio logs, conveys more of the storyline when picked up. Instead of an audio journal, you get a visual clue of what’s going on with letters, pictures, and other memorabilia that you find in the game.
Other collectibles you can find in the game are bright spheres called luminaries, which are… Well, they’re never quite explained in the game, but Didi seems to know what they are, and they are required to power up devices and spotlights in order to progress through the game. Luminaries are mainly found by exploring the area you’re in, and completing some simple platforming puzzles in the shadows to reach them.
I have a feeling that luminaries were planned to be tied in with the actual game, but they never quite got developed to that point, leaving them semi-optional objectives that only attempt to add time to an already short game.
A typical puzzle in Contrast consist of moving around light sources and objects around a room to create platforms to get to the next area. Other puzzles require you to phase objects into the shadow world so they can trigger switches and mechanisms in the real world. Environments range from the broken-down exhibits of Johnny’s circus, to the mechanical workings of Vercenzo’s lab, to Kat’s cabaret. All of it introduces interesting objects that create shadows such as turning gears, carousels, and an entire jazz band.
The puzzles are not too difficult, but not too easy either. You’ll find yourself taking at least a few moments to figure out everything. The actual execution of the solution, like most 3D puzzle games, is a mix of thought along with some fast reflexes. Quickly shifting between the shadow world and the real world is pretty seamless with the help of Dawn’s dash attack, but I found myself sometimes floating between the edges of two platforms, which only stopped when I phased out of the shadow.
Behind the shadows…
The mechanics might be smooth, but the build of Contrast I played had its share of glitches. These glitches may have been patched up since release, but having notable glitches on the preview build is a cause for concern.
There was this one time where I phased into shadow to get past a solid window, and phased myself inside of the wall with no way to get out. The other time I was carrying a crate, and the crate managed to phase through Dawn as she also tried to grip a nearby ledge. It stuck me in an awkward limbo where Dawn was part crate and part imaginary friend.
Not everything that pushes me out of the game is a glitch though. There was a point in the game where I thought I could bring a ball up a stairway and found out there was an invisible wall in the way of my clear path. I dropped the ball, and found myself able to walk to the area. It’s sloppy things like this that make me feel that the development was rushed to the last minute.
Glitches aside, I enjoyed the shadow shifting mechanic, and felt really satisfied when I figured the puzzles out. But I do wish there was more variety in those puzzles. While it’s fun to solve the puzzles, they began to get very formulaic. Move light source, move objects, meld through the shadows to get to point B. Or bring item in shadows, manipulate light source to bring object to point B or onto a switch.
Near the end of Contrast, the game introduces a new mechanic in which you direct light beams through tubes in order to power spotlights and other devices, which added a new dimension in the game. However, as soon as this particular mechanic is introduced, the game ends. They obviously had time to put in at least three puzzles that had to do with crates and switches, and at least two puzzles that involve pushing a light around. Why wasn’t there more of this mechanic as well? To Compulsion’s credit, there is an interesting elevator puzzle early on in the game, but that is the only other notable puzzle for a while.
Speaking of the end, it is about act three when the plot gets interesting– something I feel should have happened in act two. The last level in particular had me intrigued– the amount of collectibles found in the last level increased twofold, and they were interesting enough to build up a lot of mystery. Unfortunately, none of this mystery is ever resolved or touched upon at the end of the game, which is rather disappointing.
It seems that Compulsion was rushing down to the wire to release Contrast in time for the PS4, and because of this, the game feels a bit rushed. Stilted dialog, a short, undeveloped story, and a few game-resetting glitches don’t quite do the game justice. However, the mechanics are interesting enough to at least give it a try– but I’d wait for it to go on sale.