Contrast is a game I’ve been looking forward to since I first saw it on Steam Greenlight over a year ago. The intriguing vaudeville-inspired setting, unique platforming that transitions between 2D and 3D, and catchy jazz soundtrack on display in those first early peeks was enough to make Contrast one of the first games I ever voted up on Greenlight. Apparently I wasn’t the only one drawn to the title, as Contrast was approved in one of the very first batches of Greenlit games. Now, having played through the full release, I can say that the game fulfills many of the hopes I had for it, even if there are some missteps along the way.
The story follows a young girl named Didi in a fantastical version of 1920s Paris. Didi has a rough family life: Her mother is a rising cabaret star that often leaves her home alone into the early hours of the morning, and her father is a bumbling ex-con artist who is desperately trying to make things right between the three of them and make an honest living, but always seems to fail miserably at it. When she’s alone, Didi entertains herself by talking with her invisible friend Dawn, an acrobatic young woman and the character that the player controls.
The game deals with some pretty heavy subject matter, as seen through the eyes of a little girl. Her mother is often seen as unfit to take care of her due to the long hours she works and the general disapproval that is associated with her chosen profession, while her father is struggling to repay mobsters that he made deals with in an attempt to get back on his feet following a prison sentence for his previous cons.
Contrast takes a unique approach in the way it portrays characters besides Didi: Everyone is depicted as merely shadows, with the implication being that you are Didi’s imaginary friend and exist only within some sort of mysterious shadow realm. Many of the details regarding Dawn and this shadow dimension are left unexplained, with some of the collectables dropping hints about what’s going on. It’s clearly a deliberate storytelling decision by the developers to keep Dawn and the shadow realm only vaguely explained, in an attempt to get the players to find the collectables and try to piece things together on their own. Your millage may vary on how well they achieved this goal.
The voice acting and soundtrack are another high point of the game’s storytelling. The dialogue is all fairly well-written and acted, if hammed up to go with the game’s vaudevillian setting. Didi in particular stands out as a memorable character backed with a solid voice acting performance. The game’s catchy jazz music is also very high quality, enough so that spending a few extra dollars on the deluxe edition is worth it.
While the story, setting, and characters are all charming enough, the game unfortunately slips up a little on the technical and gameplay sides. The core gameplay is all about solving puzzles and platforming by manipulating light and shadow. Much of the game is spent as a 3D third-person platformer, however, Dawn has the ability to shift into a shadowy figure that operates on a 2D plane. To do this you’ll typically need to turn on or adjust lights to make shadows, and then move objects in the world around in ways that cast shadows at just the right angle that allows you to travel on these shadows in the 2D plane. Some puzzles require you to actually phase objects into shadows with you.
To the game’s credit, it does create some fun and clever puzzles that give the player an admirable degree of freedom in coming up with a solution, but unfortunately it seems that they ran out of ideas on how to use the shadow-manipulating gameplay in other, more interesting ways. The puzzles and platforming are by no means bad in any way, it’s just that the core mechanics aren’t really shaken up much in the rather short experience that the game provides. By the time you reach the game’s halfway point you’ve already seen most of the ways that the light and shadow mechanics work, and nothing really new or more complex is ever introduced in the latter half of the game.
The platforming also isn’t quite as smooth or fluid as it could be, especially when in the 2D shadow form. Dawn’s movements, particularly her jumping capabilities, are just a little too clunky for a character that is supposedly an amazing, circus-quality acrobat. When combined with how glitchy the game can be, Dawn’s awkward movements make the platforming portion of the game’s puzzles feel unpolished. The puzzles are also way too easy. I never encountered any puzzles that had me genuinely stumped for a while, requiring me to sit back and carefully examine and think them through. This is coming from someone who is generally terrible at puzzle-platformers, so if I found the game too easy then a really hardcore fan of puzzle games will likely breeze through Contrast effortlessly.
Even worse is the fact that the game is quite buggy in its current form, adding to the general awkwardness of the platforming. Getting stuck on terrain isn’t that uncommon, and I encountered two instances of bugs so severe that a checkpoint reload was required. One involved shifting into the shadows and clipping right into the bottom of the level. All attempts at shifting back into a shadow involved me running around on the back “wall” of the level’s geometry. Another involved a crate that must be turned into a shadow and repositioned with a spotlight. The crate hit an uneven part of the wall and catapulted into the air, where it then proceeded to hover around in the sky like a highly confused and oddly-shaped UFO. Luckily, the game’s checkpoints are very generous, but that doesn’t excuse the sheer volume of glitches I encountered.
The game isn’t very long either. It took me just over 4 hours to beat, and I found all the collectables and achievements within that timeframe. The ending is also a bit abrupt, like the developers were rushed for time. That said, it’s still a pretty satisfying ending, and more content is welcome assuming it’s the right price.
I wish I could be a bit more positive about Contrast, because what it does right is all great. The story, characters, aesthetic, and music are all well-worth experiencing for yourself, it’s just a shame that the rest of the game has a few warts to overlook. While the light and shadow, 2D-to-3D mechanics make for some clever and fun puzzles, it’s unfortunate that the puzzles are just too easy and the platforming isn’t as smooth as I wish it was. The bugs are also a concern, and the developers are actively working to fix them. Even with my complaints, I think that the game is still worth experiencing at some point, if not now then a bit later on once the developers have ironed out a few of the game’s kinks. You can find the game right now on Steam for $15. If you do pick up the game, the collector’s edition is a worthy purchase to get the game’s excellent soundtrack.