When Steam Greenlight first started, I was really excited to see what games people might be attempting to bring to the PC digital distribution powerhouse. One of the first titles that caught my eye was Contrast, a 2D/3D puzzle-platformer with an interesting twist: you would have to transition between the real world and the world of shadows to traverse the levels. As has been the case with too many promising games on Greenlight, it took a rather long time for this game to get enough votes to get passed, and it seemed to undergo many changes in that time period. One of these changes was developer Compulsion Games’ partnering with Focus Home Interactive to bring this game to more than just the PC. The game was eventually approved, however, and it recently debuted on PC, 360, PS3 and PS4, with Sony offering it free with PS+. The question remains, however; was Contrast worth the wait, or does the game really leave you flat?
And before you ask, no, I could not resist the pun.
30 Second Review
+ Creative platforming and puzzle solving
+ Interesting setting
+ Creative use of shadow to tell the story, which is decent if not great
– Some of the puzzles are counter-intuitive
– Ending feels a little rushed, especially from a story perspective
Noir Meets Charm
While the name Contrast is meant to reference the ability to shift between the 3D and 2D perspective, it is a fitting title for the game in more ways than one. The game is set in 1920s Paris, and the overall noir feel fits the setting perfectly. Most of the primary characters are ones you would expect in this kind of setting:
- A curvy jazz singer who tries to balance her job singing in the Paris night clubs with raising her daughter.
- A flim flam man, who happens to be said daughter’s estranged father and is trying to put together a plan that will help him reunite his family.
- The nefarious characters with whom the father has had to deal to get the financial backing for his plan.
- An extremely skilled illusionist who the father has hired to be the main attraction of the show that, if successful, will allow the family to be reunited.
Juxtaposed with this setting are Didi and Dawn, the two primary characters of the story. Didi is the daughter of the jazz singer and flim flam man, and despite her promises to her mom to stay home and be good, she has a tendency to go exploring the city streets of Paris at night trying to make sense of her life and family. She is accompanied by Dawn, the character you control. Dawn is Didi’s best friend, though no one else seems to be able to see her. She also has the ability to shift between the 3D world in which she and Didi reside and the 2D world of shadows the rest of the cast inhabits.
That’s right; only Didi and Dawn exist in what you might think of as the “real world” of 3D. All of the other characters in the game are just shadow, even though they can interact with Didi and, sometimes, the environment. This dynamic leads to some rather unusual methods of story telling, and at various points of the game, you actually will use the shadows created by these other characters to reach your goals. It’s a nice touch, as is the charming voice and enthusiasm of Didi, which helps break up what could otherwise be a rather dismal or grim game.
So we have an interesting setting and clever storytelling. Still, a platformer is only as good as its platforming segment. So how does the platforming of Contrast hold up?
Solid, But Not Intuitive
In Contrast, you have to transition back and forth between the 3D “real world” and the 2D world of shadows to reach new areas and solve puzzles. As you can guess, that leads to some rather inventive puzzle solving and platforming. Can’t get into a room because the door is locked? If there is light coming through a window, you can shift into shadow and walk right in. Need to clear a gap that is too far to jump? Shift into shadow and walk along the line created by the higher plane. As you progress through the game, you unlock other abilities as well, allowing you to slide through small shadows or even take certain objects with you into the shadow world, allowing you to take them places you would not otherwise be able to carry them. It becomes clear early on that Compulsion Games really wanted to play with the mechanics of transitioning between the two worlds, and the developer did a good job of that.
Unfortunately, the developer did not do a great job of making the puzzle solving intuitive. Let me see if I can explain what I mean. When you play a game like Portal, you generally know what you have to do to progress through a level. You are just struggling to find out how to do it. At points in Contrast, I had no idea what I was supposed to do next. What was frustrating was often the answer was quite simple; it was just not well presented. As an example, early on in the game, you have to set up shadows to get to a second story of a bar. Once there, you have to get the other side, but there is nothing connecting the two sides within the room. After experimenting for some 15 minutes or more, I accidentally discovered all I had to do was walk out the door on the second story and follow around to the outside of the building to get where I needed to go. The solution was simple, but it was not presented well.
While the platforming in the game may not be intuitive, it is solid, and I did find myself having those “AHA” moments that platform-puzzle gamers like so much. There is an undeniable sense of charm in Contrast, and that charm carries over to the gameplay rather well. I was able to beat the game without resorting to using any form of FAQ or walkthrough, which speaks to the fact you can find the solutions, even if said solutions can be a bit of a stretch.
There are a couple other little issues I had with the game. One is Didi tends to vanish, which becomes a problem when the game is telling you to follow her, as it tends to lead to more finding her than following her. The other problem is the story is rather hastily wrapped up. It almost feels like Compulsion Games suddenly realized it had developed a rather convoluted story and had limited time to close it, so the developer throws everything at you rather rapidly in the last act. As someone who was rather interested in the direction the story was headed, it left me a little unfulfilled.
Still Worth the Experience
Problems aside, Contrast is still a fairly unique experience that is worth playing if you are a fan of puzzle-platformers. The story is fairly strong, albeit rushed, and the gameplay will have you smiling when you realize what you need to do to solve the next puzzle. While there are a few things I would like to have seen improved, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this game, and I would recommend it to any fan of the genre. For being a rather charming look at 1920s Paris with clever but not intuitive gameplay, Contrast gets an 8 out of 10.
If you are interested in seeing Contrast in action, check out my Gaming in Real Time post on the game.