Contrast was drafted in at the last minute as the second of the free launch titles available to Playstation Plus subscribers on PS4, following the delay of Driveclub. This trade left many PS4 fans a little disappointed: a heavily promoted PS4 exclusive, full of next-gen social features, from an established developer with a strong track record at the top of its genre, replaced by a multiplatform single player debut release from an indie developer (Compulsion Games).
Contrast is certainly a smaller release than Driveclub promised to be: depending on how quickly you grasp the puzzles, you could easily be done with Contrast in 3-4 hours. But while short, Contrast is also pretty sweet, and well worth the small demands that it puts on your time.
Contrast tells the story of Didi, a young girl who is attempting to reunite her estranged mother and father. The story is simple but surprisingly mature in nature following the initial setup. You’ll help Didi in this quest by playing as Dawn, her mysterious companion, invisible to Didi’s mother and father.
Didi’s world is certainly a distinctive one. The art style in Contrast is absolutely lovely, if somewhat hard to define. “Film noir vibe, art deco styling, and a dose of Coraline thrown in for good measure” is probably close to an accurate description. The traversable parts of the world are punctuated with what can only be adequately called gaps in the fabric of reality, into which Dawn can (and will) inadvertently plunge if you’re not careful with her.
While the art style itself is interesting, the most notable stylistic choice in Contrast is how NPCs are handled: with the exception of Didi, all NPCs are rendered to your viewpoint as shadows on lighted surfaces. It’s a lovely aesthetic which leads to some charmingly rendered cutscenes, but also helps to enforce the primary mechanic upon which Contrast’s gameplay rests – the ability of Dawn to traverse from her corporeal world into the realm of shadows.
In the example in the video above, a backlit argument between Didi’s mother and father provides the opportunity for a platforming puzzle as Dawn uses their projected shadows to cross an otherwise-uncrossable gap to gain access to a hotel building. Contrast’s relatively scant playtime is based largely upon puzzles such as these: taking advantage of (and manipulating) the relationship between light sources and objects within the world, to use platforms provided by shadows and therefore reach parts of the world that couldn’t be reached by conventional means. The mechanic is simple, but doesn’t outstay its welcome. Whether it could be sustained over a longer game is another question; following the introduction of shifting into the shadow world, the only addition is a dash skill which is only relevant in limited circumstances.
While it has a strong core mechanic, a striking art style and a charming story, Contrast isn’t without its problems. The biggest of these is that the gameplay simply has a tendency to be frustratingly hit and miss in nature due to somewhat inexact controls: often puzzles will come down to simple trial and error, with repetition of small sections occurring quite regularly as you miss jumps and fall from ledges. This is particularly noticeable during a shadow-puppet theatre fairytale section: accompanied by a Bastion-esque commentary from Didi’s father and featuring a Limbo-evoking spider chase, this sequence could have been a real highlight. But unfortunately it’s punctuated by regular repetition of small sections until it can begin to feel like a chore.
Like the gameplay, the visuals are also marked by inconsistency. They’re regularly delightful, but that makes the contrast all the more stark when you notice moments of ropiness from Didi’s character model (particularly in cutscenes). You’ll also spot regular glitches in the hit detection between Dawn’s character model and the shadows that are supporting her, often leaving Dawns legs ankle-deep into the shadows that should be supporting her feet. Fortunately this never extends to the cardinal sin of platformers, where the edge of a jump is not exactly where it looks like it is, but it’s jarring nonetheless. Loading times are also regular and relatively lengthy, a surprise given the small scale of the environments, the last-gen genesis of Contrast, and the significant computing power upgrade available in the PS4.
As a PS4 launch title, Contrast can arguably be seen as a disappointment, particularly if you look at it as a direct launch day replacement for Driveclub. It doesn’t do anything whatsoever to categorise it as “next-gen”. But if you consider Contrast free from the burden of expectation that the phrase “next gen launch title” confers upon it, you’ll find a lovely little game. It isn’t without issues, and it doesn’t do anything particularly new or special, but it’s that doesn’t stop it being a fun, charming way to spend a few hours.
Contrast was reviewed on PS4 using the copy obtained for free via the reviewer’s existing Playstation Plus subscription.
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