The setting for Contrast is a little peculiar. At one moment you’re navigating what appear to be the narrow streets, balconies and rooftops of an old European city centre. Moments later you’re on a beach or at the doors to a lighthouse. The cast of characters are almost Vaudevillian, with their clipped 1920s Eastern American accents and yet the signage is at least partially in French.
It’s a game of larger and smaller contrasts, juxtaposition on a sliding scale of importance to the narrative.
That’s an interesting and risky approach. Get it right by giving the audience just enough to tease their interest and Compulsion Games could have an incredibly thoughtful and interesting universe in which to create their game. Get it wrong at it will simply feel confused and uncomfortable. Contrast achieves both, in almost equal measure, throughout the course of its brief but beautiful story.
You take the role of Dawn, an acrobat unseen by anyone but Didi. With the exception of Didi, Dawn sees only people’s shadows and not their bodily forms. This means that the world often feels oddly empty, even when it is supposedly fully populated. Dawn has a curious ability; she can shift into her own shadow on any well-lit, flat surface and then all shadows become hard lines to her.
Using this ability, she can climb along the crisp lines of a brightly contrasted umbra cast by a café parasol, string of bunting or even a person. The contrast between light and dark become the hard edges of her world – until she shifts back out of the shadows and into the 3D world again. Occasionally, she can carry objects – boxes and balls – into the shadows with her.
This interesting mechanic is the pivot upon which all the puzzling aspects of the game rotate. Dawn can flit between worlds to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Initially that’s simply a case of spotting some useful shadow and shifting into the light to make use of it. As the game progresses, the puzzles become more complex, involving moving light sources and changing the angles and size of shadows cast against a surface.
Additionally, there are moments that seem to be memories of moments passed that are played out in shadow for Dawn to climb and puzzle her way to an objective. The environment takes on more of a bizarre and fragmented appearance as the narrative progresses too. No spoilers but the world you’re playing in certainly adapts and reflects the story that you’re playing through – although that is quite sparsely explained at times.
Where Contrast undoubtedly succeeds is in its art direction and audio stylings. The soundtrack is a beautiful, jazz-infused cabaret set, soulfully delivered and perfectly in keeping with the tone of the world you’re playing in. The character design is equally impressive, with marionette-like players that recall Grim Fandango’s look, mixed with just enough Tim Burton to be endearing.
Unfortunately, the voice work is not quite so accomplished. Kat – Didi’s mother – is well performed but several of the adult male characters feel a little hammy or at least pedestrian in their delivery. Dawn is voiceless but Didi has the largest part and is the least accomplished performance on the cast. In fact, the character of Didi, upon whom we’re supposed to rest most of our empathy, is simply not very likeable. She’s demanding, ungrateful and self-obsessed.
It’s all probably perfectly natural for a child at the heart of a story, of course, but it was a little irritating to constantly be performing difficult tasks for her only to then have another demanded without a word of appreciation. Again, part of that is narrative but it was an obstacle in the way of my empathy for the character and that has a detrimental effect on that narrative progression. Simply, I didn’t care if Didi managed to reunite her estranged family.
That’s not the only issue with Contrast, either. The nature of some of the puzzles makes for some imprecision in the platforms. That’s most often because the user places them by manipulating objects in the environment so it would be unreasonable to apportion too much blame to the game for that. However, the camera often seems to be working against you and the controls are twitchy enough that any margin of imprecision in the physics of a puzzle can be magnified into a real problem.
Contrast is, quite fittingly, a game of stark separations. There are elements of real quality but those are unfortunately juxtaposed with certain areas where the game fails to quite live up to its potential. With some very interesting ideas and some genuinely clever puzzles, it’s a shame that it has moments that feel a little rushed, a narrative that doesn’t hold any real sense of surprise or intrigue and a cast of characters that it’s difficult to empathise with.
Version tested: PC