Review: Contrast is Magical, Compelling, But More Than A Few Shades From Perfection
Compulsion Games and Focus Home Interactive’s Contrast is many things. It’s a 3D world forged from the “whimsical, dark and bizarre nature” of German Expressionism, the “artistic decadence” of the 1920s, and wrapped in a Film Noir narrative. It’s a magical 2D world of shadow, suspense and mystery at the edge of a dreamy world. And then there’s a little vaudeville and cabaret with a touch of sultry jazz. But most of all, Contrast is a story about a young girl and her father. Contrast is not a perfect package, but what it does do exceedingly well is deliver a wonderfully deep story with a lot of potential for something more.
At Contrast‘s heart is Didi, the inquisitive daughter of Kat Knight, a nightclub singer, and Johnny Fenris, a man with many mistakes and debts in his past. The entirety of what makes Contrast work hinges on Didi, her parents, and a magician named Vincenzo who is as important to Johnny’s woes as he is to the solution. The story is so important, in fact, that it greatly overshadows the mechanics of the game, the world itself, and the silent protagonist, Dawn, Didi’s imaginary friend and the character the player controls. But this is both Contrast‘s greatest strength and its greatest weakness: to have such an engaging and irresistible narrative, but gameplay that can’t seem to keep up with its own charm and depth.
In fact, charm and innovation are so pronounced in Contrast that it warrants playing just for the presentation. Mechanically, Contrast revolves around Dawn’s ability to jump in and out of shadows to traverse Didi’s world. But shadows play an important role in how players experience the game: unique to Contrast is the way that every cutscene involves the use of shadows to tell its tale. The trailers you’ve seen before this? Those weren’t just fun, creative ways to emphasis the game’s theme.
Dialogue between characters take place entirely in shadows, and even scenes involving Didi have her conversing with shades instead of flesh and blood people. Some of these moments even serve not only as cutscenes, but as means of progression, with Dawn using the scene’s participants as platforms when exploring the 2D plane.
Coupled with Contrast‘s truly superb voice-acting, there are several sequences that really standout, including a few scenes involving Didi’s parents and a puppetnshow that stars Dawn as the heroine of a folklore tale. Again, these are the moments when Contrast really shines, along with a truly surprising twists and magnificent lines like “You’re just a carousel of broken dreams.”
But as deep, adorable and touching as Contrast is, the gameplay doesn’t always carry the same affection and weight. Dawn is, at best, merely a silent extension of Didi’s will. Perhaps it was intentional, since in one form Dawn is literally a shade of a person. But it’s unfortunate that Dawn isn’t used to better ability, especially with her role as an imaginary friend to a lonely girl. But there’s more of a problem with Dawn’s physical abilities than her involvement in the narrative.
Dawn has several abilities in her arsenal: she can jump in and out of shadows when next to a brightly lit wall, she can phase through thin shadows with her dash ability, and she can pick up items and shift them into the shadow plane for use in puzzles. Didi will occasionally help you by manipulating objects in the environment, but usually she just provides guidance and hints while Dawn does all the heavy lifting (both figuratively and literally).
There are other abilities, like dashing in the 3D world through weak structures, and other applications of shadow manipulation (like using a spotlight to pick up and move objects shifted into the shadow plane), but these are largely isolated ideas, with the former quickly becoming a faster and more attractive way of moving through the world than anything else.
And isolated ideas is Contrast‘s major flaw: there’s plenty of interesting ideas, but somehow they don’t always come together so well. For all of Dawn’s athletic ability, platforming isn’t always precise, isn’t always smooth, and isn’t always fun. Sometimes manipulating objects and exploring the environment feels sluggish or confusing, and there’s more than a few times when hopping between dimensions wasn’t as seamless as it could be, especially attempting to combine jumping, shifting and dashing in a way gamers may expect from most puzzle platformers.
But the biggest problem with Contrast is its brevity. Even with additional objectives available for players like collecting Luminaries (glowing orbs that can be used for puzzles) and collecting posters for an unlockables gallery, the game is incredibly short. This is fine for a game that has a powerful and concise story, and to a certain extent, Contrast wraps up its conclusion with an interesting build-up and satisfying delivery; although something about it feels like it was cut short, hastened to completion before it was meant to be finished.
Still, Contrast has some intriguing (if somewhat odd and unexpected) twists pop in, hints at something grander, more fantastic and possibly darker, especially in the last moments of the game. Some things may begin to answer questions you’ve had about Didi’s world, while others will certainly introduce more questions.
Unfortunately, there’s some other small issues that continue to take away from the narrative and make Contrast a bittersweet experience. Exploring with Dawn can be buggy, occasionally getting stuck in tight spaces or glitching when grabbing interactive objects. There was also a few times when Dawn was inexplicably knocked out of the shadowverse for no discernible reason, which was frustrating, especially when attempting to tackle certain obstacles. There’s also some odd choices, like Dawn’s inability to hold onto ledges in the shadowverse like she can in the 3D world, but this is a problem that doesn’t come up much during the game.
Most noticeably, for a game whose selling points included a soundtrack of custom-written and performed jazz music, I was hoping for more performances, or at least more scenes driven with custom musical content. The amount in the game is satisfactory, but Contrast doesn’t always feel as lively as it does in its trailers.
Contrast is, again, many things: in more than one way, it’s vibrant and dark. It’s beautiful and surreal. It’s heartwarming and compelling. But at the same time, it often feels like it could use just a little more polish, a little more expansion. It’s clear that Compulsion Games has a wide range of ideas that together could make for a game of the year worthy indie title. Unfortunately, Contrast is not that game, but it certainly makes for a demonstration of the potential the studio can deliver with just a little more time or resources. While Contrast feels somewhat incomplete, I genuinely enjoyed my time with it; I’ve followed this game for a while, and I just wish I had more to see, more to explore, and more to interact with.
That said, I’m excited to see what Compulsion will bring next, and hope that a Contrast sequel will explore places that even Dawn has yet to go.
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