When the concept is fantastic but the execution suffers, what do you do? How badly do you penalize the production for that lack of stability and refinement? How much of that lackluster technical performance are you willing to overlook because the concept was so very creative? It’s a matter of striking a balance, I suppose, and it probably hinges on the elements you prioritize as a gamer. Those who put a premium on innovation and imagination will undoubtedly support Contrast, while others won’t grant it a pass due to significant control issues.
The graphics don’t exactly epitomize the term “next-gen” but then again, they don’t need to. This is all about the idea, the theme, the atmosphere; it’s a 1920s film noir dreamscape, the kind filled with seedy clubs, fast-talking con-men, and the ever-present lure of fame and fortune. The world design isn’t anything special but many of the puzzles are wonderfully creative, and the overarching ambiance makes exploration enjoyable. There isn’t too much to explore, though, as it’s a mostly linear adventure, and the animations are somewhat erratic.
The sound is a big-time highlight, because you’ve got the combination of an effective, fitting soundtrack and really solid voice performances. The effects sometimes get lost in the shuffle but they’re hardly a priority. With such atmospheric projects, the audio needs to bolster immersion with authentic, top-quality music and voices. I wouldn’t say the audio production values are super high in Contrast, but you really do feel as if you’re part of a captivating 20s drama, and that’s a significant accomplishment. The background sound, including the great era-specific melodies, enhances the overall experience. It's just so very....noir.
As I say, the concept is great: You play as a little girl’s not-so-imaginary friend, who can shift between 3D physical reality and the 2D shadow world. In other words, this friend, Dawn, moves about normally until she “shifts” and becomes part of the shadows. At that time, she can actually walk upon a shadow; she can use it to climb, span gaps, reach inaccessible heights, etc. The little girl, Didi, is well aware of your presence and typically asks for your help as she follows her mother and father around the town. See, her home life isn’t that great; her mother is a cabaret singer and her father keeps trying to run small-time scams to get money for the family.
It’s exactly the kind of story one would expect in this atmosphere. Although the plot never really coalesces into a something that is compelling and poignant, it’s still entertaining. And while it’s certainly true that the narrative plays second fiddle to the gameplay, it’s important to remember that the atmosphere and story are critical to one’s enjoyment of the game. That’s what helps to override the obvious technical problems the adventure unfortunately has, and keeps one playing even when the frustration begins to mount. For the most part, you’re tackling a variety of well-designed puzzles that involve Dawn’s shifting ability. Sometimes, Didi helps, too.
These puzzles combine platforming and diverse problem-solving. Besides the shift, Dawn can also jump and smash through breakable barriers with a rush move. When in shadow form, this maneuver allows her to bypass relatively thin shadow barriers, such as columns. The gameplay is a really cool blend of platforming challenges and mental tests; step one usually involves trying to figure out exactly how to get where you wan to be, and step two has you executing the game plan. On top of which, the shadows aren’t always static; sometimes, you have to climb around the moving shadows of characters, which can be especially taxing.
As you can see, the idea is a great one for a game. Unfortunately, the standard control is so loose and unreliable that it seriously hampers your progress. Even once you get used to the erratic nature of the control, there are technical eccentricities that can really drive you crazy. Landing exactly on a narrow platform can be exceedingly annoying, and the camera really doesn’t help matters. The general stability of the game is also questionable, as I was once positioned clear across town after failing a certain test. It only made that mistake once but it’s definitely worth mentioning, because it hints at other potential downfalls.
Furthermore, the developers don’t do quite enough with either the gameplay or the story. The adventure can be completed in under five hours, which isn’t bad considering it’s free for PlayStation Plus members. But it still feels too light, as I’m convinced more could’ve been done with the puzzles. Some are downright ingenious and most are really fun to attempt and ultimately solve. But they’re all tackled in a similar fashion and outside of a few collectibles to grab, there isn’t much else in the way of content. That extremely loose control is going to turn a lot of gamers off, too, especially when you start to question the outdated collision detection.
It’s difficult to recommend a purchase but at the same time, it’s difficult to slap the “don’t bother” label on the game. The atmosphere and artistic style are unique and many gamers out there might be willing to overlook the serious technical misgivings. It’s worth seeing and trying, if only because of the ambition and imagination of the design team. And besides, it’s free for Plus members and you kinda have to be a Plus subscriber in the new generation, so… I just wish Compulsion had refined and solidified the basic control and camera movement; had they done so, and had they implemented one or two more gameplay features, this could’ve been a top-tier title for the PlayStation 4 launch.
Contrast is aptly named. Its disappointing instability contrasts sharply with its wonderful ambiance and concept, and you’re left feeling somewhat unsatisfied. The adventure is moderately fulfilling, the story is worth hearing, and the atmosphere is captivating, but in the back of your mind, you know what it could’ve been. You know that it feels a little rushed, and that such flighty, fidgety control can give you unnecessary fits. You want the developers to take it back because you know exactly what needs to be fixed and if it’s fixed, you know the result will be excellent. Sadly, we rarely get everything we want in life.
The Good: Great art style and overall concept. Good acting performances and an excellent score. Some really inventive puzzle design. Nifty blend of puzzles and platforming.
The Bad: Graphics aren’t exactly polished. Extremely loose control, and an unreliable camera. Not enough done with the gameplay.
The Ugly: “I hate having to fight a character’s erratic movement…I really, really do.”
11/21/2013 Ben Dutka