It’s understandable that Contrast is getting a fair amount of attention. It might be indie, but it’s also a launch title released with PlayStation 4, one of two next-gen titles available for free to PS Plus subscribers. The Compulsion Games developed title has also done a lot to grab interest with its unique art style and interesting central concept in which the gamer can move into shadows, switching the platformer from 3D to 2D.
The basic premise of the game is simple. You play Dawn, the impossibly skinny acrobat imaginary friend of Didi, the child who is the centre of the game’s narrative, and who is trying desperately to reunite her broken family. It’s never a good sign of stability when your problems are being solved by your ten year old daughter and her imaginary friend, and Didi’s home life is the kind of dysfunctional that makes the Lannisters look like the model nuclear family in comparison...
There are a lot of positive things to be said about Contrast. I love games with an interesting art style, and the distorted, colourful character design reminded me favourably of early Tim Burton animation. This all adds to the game's atmosphere and style, and it is this aspect in which Contrast really makes its mark. The original jazz sountrack was composed specifically for the game and features the gorgeous voice of contemporary jazz singer Laura Ellis. The music perfectly captures the game’s aesthetic blend of jazz and burlesque, and is one of the first really attention grabbing things about the title.
The story is also well written and engaging, with the voice acting helping to make the game feel authentically vaudeville and 1920s. The backdrop of family drama and domestic strife is an interesting addition to a platformer, many of which are rather light on story elements. This juxtaposition might not be a big hit with some fans of the genre, since the traditional target-based collection mechanic often associated with platformers is missing. Instead of goodies, or simple targets (like "completing a level") puzzles in Contrast function merely to advance the story, giving the game something of an interactive-story feel that might sit awkwardly with platformer fans.
But in spite of all the positives, the main thing I took away from Contrast was not the music, visuals or story, but rather a strong sense of frustration. The main problem with Contrast - and the thing that essentially makes playing it ultimately disappointing - is that, in spite of having a cool mechanic, a gorgeous art style and spectacular soundtrack, it often just isn’t very fun to play.
The game’s central mechanic is interesting and innovative; the ability to move in and out of shadows - between 3D and 2D - was what intrigued me about the title in the first place. And in fairness, some of the puzzles - particularly in the first hour, before the shadow mechanic gets rather tired - are an interesting combination of timing, puzzle solving and mechanic that once cracked, are enjoyable and seamless. Several of the puzzles that involve manipulating the shadows of moving people fall into this category, and the game is at it best when it exploits it own unique mechanic. Unfortunately, for all the times the game gets this right, it gets it horribly wrong.
Much of the time Dawn feels not much more than a skivvy, obliged by the game to complete arbitrary tasks as Didi or the game itself commands. If your heart doesn’t immediately sink when the first action you’re commanded to complete in the game is to move a cart full of barrels forward five paces, it certainly will 5 minutes later when you’re (yet again) forced to move objects short distances at the exact time and order the game tells you to. This tendency in Contrast takes away any feeling of discovery, of exploration in the beautiful world that Compulsion has created, and it’s a great shame. Whilst some of the puzzles are innovative and feel fresh, a lot are as tired as they come; button pressing, box moving and repetitive jump puzzles are low points of the game.
And this is just when the game actually works properly. One of the main problems that ruined my enjoyment of Contrast was the repeated, often game breaking bugs, occasional, inexplicable poor frame rate lagging and other broken features. On more than one occasion I was stuck, unable to move, between invisible walls, once having to actually restart from a previous save point, since a missed jump had resulted in being permanently stuck in a glitch in the game. This frustration was only augmented by the fact that the game auto-saves between puzzles, meaning a glitch at the end can send you back to the start of a fiddly and frustrating task.
I can deal with occasional glitches in a game if it doesn’t seriously affect gameplay quality, but coming across so many in a game that took under 5 hours to complete was infuriating. Contrast’s collision detection also left something to be desired; a pretty serious issue considering that much of the game’s mechanic involved jumping through narrow gaps and jumping on to ledges. Even when the puzzle itself was interesting and varied, too often the effect was ruined by the fact that Dawn would be knocked off platforms apparently without any force acting on her, or else end up standing, mid-air, on an apparent blank stretch of wall. I played the PC version of the title, initially using the keyboard and mouse controls, but quickly switched to a controller. It's clear Contrast was designed chiefly with console in mind; the PC controls were unintuitive and fiddly.
In addition, the length of the game was something of an issue. Whilst there’s not inherently anything wrong with a game being just over four hours long, particularly when it’s an indie game, in the case of Contrast it genuinely affected the story. The politics of Didi’s family appear to run deep and complex, and by halfway through the title I was wondering how they were going to wrap it up satisfactorily, and sadly the answer was they couldn’t. The final scenes feel overly short, too wrapped up and perfunctory, and simply not particularly believable. The early storytelling was one of the strengths of Contrast, which only made my disappointment at its ending the more marked.
I really, really wanted to like Contrast, and in many ways it is a beautiful game. The thing is, though, that however great a wow-factor devleopers can create in visuals, in compelling story, and in atmospheric music, this cannot and should not come at the expense of enjoyable, inventive and functional gameplay. Unfortunately for Contrast, too much time appears to have been spent on polishing the look of the game, and far too little on polishing the actual gameplay.