Out of The Shadows, but lost in the background
Unrestricted by huge corporate publishers, small indie development teams enjoy a great deal of freedom to make games the way they want rather than just doing what they’re told. And with this freedom the indie games scene is ripe with fresh ideas that frequently break the mould we gamers are so accustomed to. Some of these fresh ideas are included in great games that are entertaining, fun and presented well. And then there’s Contrast.
Set in the 20’s or 30’s you play the role of Dawn, imaginary friend to a little girl named Didi who has a far from normal home life. Through Dawns ability to “shift” in and out of shadows you help Didi repair her shattered family by adjusting the course of events past. I found this story concept to be quite clever in theory but unfortunately its execution left a lot to be desired. Dawn can only be seen by Didi and can only see Didi so rather than meaningful interactions between the characters you’re presented with silhouettes projected on walls featuring characters that are poorly voiced, poorly written and poorly animated. Didi’s voice acting is also average at best and as she is the main character you interact with, you often find yourself just wanting her to shut up.
Another missed opportunity is in the games environment. The noir type atmosphere that Contrast boasts has been pulled off so well in titles such as LA Noire and Bioshock but here it feels only half done. The levels that you explore range from city streets, bars, hotels and a lighthouse just to name a few. Didi and Dawn are completely alone in the fantasy world that they share so each environment feels completely void of life.
Contrary to this the music that echoes through the streets does a fantastic job of setting the scene and even the first time you hear the first song in the main menu you’ll think “this is gonna be good”. It’s easy to see the atmosphere that the developers were trying to capture but it all just feels unfinished.
“the music that echoes through the streets does a fantastic job of setting the scene”
At its core Contrast is a puzzle platformer. You move through a series of puzzle rooms that get increasingly difficult as you progress. The difference here (as i mentioned before) is that Dawn can literally jump into the shadows on the walls which allows her to access areas that her normal three dimensional self couldn’t normally get to. She can also bring certain objects into the shadows with her to help her solve the various puzzles you’ll encounter. Adding to this you can move certain light sources around which will of course manipulate the shadows effectively modifying the landscape. It’s difficult to explain in writing so maybe just check out the trailer below.
While the puzzles in Contrast cleverly utilise the manipulation of light and the shadow shifting mechanic they’re all just a little too easy. You enter each room with Didi literally telling you what you need to do and it’s up to you to figure out how to do it. With just a short time spent exploring the area you’ll have the room solved and you’re onto the next one with very little sense of accomplishment and Didi once again telling you what to do.
The only time when puzzles aren’t too easy is when, due to your own trial and error, they’re suddenly impossible and you need to restart. Either you’ll drop a vital object where it can no longer be retrieved or the game will bug out and the only thing left to do is restart and try again which breaks all the rules of puzzle design. A player should never find themselves in a situation where the puzzle is impossible. Adding to this frustration on one occasion not only did I find myself having to restart, but I was forced to complete the two previous puzzle rooms before hand as well! Experiences like this run the risk of the player giving up and not coming back.
While our copy of Contrast was on PC I’m usually a console gamer so I was playing this with a standard wired Xbox360 controller. The controls were clunky and frustrating however the console versions of the game might be a little more playable so I’m willing to let that aspect slide.
I have been watching the trailers of Contrast since they started coming out a few months ago and it was clear to me that this game had some great ideas, loads of originality and a beautiful style about it. I still stand by that opinion. Had the developers been able to spend just a little more time on polishing things up and maybe some more testing I really think they could have had a winner. This is the first game from Compulsion Games and while Contrast was more miss than hit, their ideas are clever enough to convince me that one day they will come up with something fantastic that we’ll all be talking about. Sadly Contrast is not that game.
*Review copy provided by the publisher
A clever and original concept sadly overshadowed by frustrating controls, bad acting and simplistic puzzles.