Contrast is a game pointed in the right direction. It takes a simple mechanism -- the ability to shift between a 3D game world and 2D shadowscapes dependent on the lighting in whatever area you're in -- and invites the gamer to play around with it. It's core is simple to explain, a concept easy to grasp and rife with potential, and given context and purpose thanks to a non-traditional story (for our medium, anyway) and a setting that soaks a vaudevillian twist on the Jazz Age in the aesthetics of film noir.
You strut about the cobbled streets of a city that rather reminds me of Prague's Old Town, inhabiting the character of Dawn -- a mute burlesque dancer -- the seemingly imaginary friend of a young girl named Didi, whose mother is an up-and-coming starlet with a voice like honey, and whose father is something of a wheeler-dealer with plans and schemes that always seem to land him, not to mention his family, in hot water.
There's something clearly a little bit different about Contrast from the start. After all, you can shift and transform yourself into a silhouette at will, and Didi is the only person you can actually see (and who can see you evidently), with everyone else appearing as shadows upon walls. The world seems eerily empty at times, though you can hear the sounds of other people, and an early scene in the club where Didi's mother Kat is singing cleverly contrasts a seemingly empty room with riotously infectious jazz and the hubbub of an eager audience. It's only when you turn on the spotlights that you see the band on stage, etched in shadow, ready for you to clamber upon in silhouetted form in order to reach the balconies above. As you venture out into the city, you begin to find paths that vanish into a starry ether, fragmented snippets of buildings and plazas, and it becomes quickly apparent that all is not what it seems.
All of this makes for an experience that tugs at your curiosity constantly, particularly the more we get wrapped up in Didi's story and those of her parents. Kat kicked her husband Johnny out for being a good-for-nothing, but he's back in town with a circus and determined to prove that he's still got something to give to his wife and daughter, even if he is up to neck in dodgy deals with shady characters. But it's the way that we learn about these narrative beats that really brings Contrast to life in a truly distinct manner. Cast as shadows upon a wall, early interplays between Johnny and Kat become interactive cutscenes that Dawn must use to reach new areas. So maybe you shift into 2D and jump upon Kat's hand, riding her cigarette upwards as she passes it to Johnny so you can reach a ledge higher up.
It's a striking thing, seeing the story so fundamentally woven into the playable fabric of the game. You forgive the somewhat oddly proportioned character models and slightly awkward animations because the nature of what's happening is gloriously beguiling. You don't have to put down the controller and watch the story unfold in between exposition dumps; in fact, it's essential that you don't.
If that all sounds gloriously rife with potential, that's because it is. But sadly Contrast turns out to be a game that you'll wish was a lot better than it actually is. Consideration of a game's length on its own is relatively valueless, that is to say a game should be as long as it needs to be. Contrast aims for that tightly crafted, single-sitting kind of game -- the sort realised perfectly by the likes of Journey and Brothers -- but it feels rushed in some ways, and cut short in others. Mechanically, it feels as though the game only comes into its stride with the puzzles and platforming in the game's final quarter, when you're rearranging astronomical devices in an illusionist's secret laboratory. For such an intriguing central hook as this ability of Dawn's to shift between 2D and 3D planes of existence, interpolating the relationship between light and shadow as well, the feeling at the end of the game is one of disappointment from a cerebral standpoint. Stylistically, Contrast exudes class, but the substance is sorely lacking.
Throughout the story, Didi takes everything within stride -- from violent gangsters to the complexities of adult relationships. Contrast is a game about some pretty adult themes, and Didi's purity of purpose -- to help extricate her parents from the holes that they dig for themselves -- helps her to become a strikingly capable character. She's fantastically drawn, even if her parents often seem a little too close to becoming genre stereotypes than characters we should care about, but it's the relationship between light and shadow, and the question of how these parallel worlds came to be and what they signify that keep us invested. Who is Dawn and what happened to her? Why can no-one else see her? But most of all, how did these parallel worlds come to be, and what is the true relationship between the light and shadow in this game? Slowly, our questions are given snippets of answers in newspaper cuttings and discarded photos that paint a picture of tangled, discordant, character-driven threads. The noirish framework is a perfect tool to deliver these dark themes in a stylised manner that presents a buffer of sorts, and the game does a good job of making us care about what happens to Didi, and with finding out just who Dawn is and how she came to inhabit this strange parallel world. But the ending feels rushed and awkward. Having built up all of these questions and conflicts in our mind -- light and shadow, innocence and cynicism, science and magic, life and death -- Contrast bottles it at the last minute and drops the curtain on a hideously saccharine-sweet ending that betrays everything that came before, delivers no real answers, and completely glosses over what happened to Dawn.
In the end, then, Contrast is a game that feels too short both in terms of mechanical and narrative development. The fantastic aesthetics, phenomenal soundtrack, and nicely layered puzzles towards the end are sadly undermined by niggling controller and camera frustrations, and a slew of unanswered questions and ultimately uninspired puzzle-platforming design. There are moments of sheer beauty in synchronicity where everything falls into place, and yet by the end I couldn't help but feel that Contrast had rather wasted its potential.
- Striking aesthetics and noir atmosphere
- Outstanding soundtrack
- Puzzles in the late game begin to realise the game's potential
- Ending is awfully rushed
- The central dichotomy at the heart of the story is never fully dealt with
- Characters apart from Didi and Dawn don't inspire much empathy
The Short Version: Contrast is a striking game for all of the right reasons: it looks stunning, offers up a central hook filled with potential and promise, and deals with themes rarely explored in this medium. Sadly, however, it's also a game that crumbles under its own ambitions -- cutting itself short before the puzzles truly hit their stride and robbing its central characters of an ending they deserve. A stylish disappointment (but still probably more interesting than Driveclub).