Indie games are unique. Unlike their triple-A brethren, who live and die on mass market appeal, and must be sure to check as many boxes as possible before they’re released into the wild, indie games are often a reflection of their creators. They can get away with pushing the envelope a little bit more, and provide experiences that major studio releases simply can’t; you wouldn’t have ever seen indie darlings like Braid, Fez, Faster Than Light, Super Meat Boy, or Journey in the triple A space, regardless of their excellence. In recent years, this has been something of a boon for the indie scene, and the number of quality titles has increased exponentially, culminating with the incredibly amount of critical and commercial success that Journey released to last year.
Given the recent success of indie and downloadable titles, it’s no surprise that two of the major launch games for the Playstation 4 would be downloadable games. The first was Sony’s very own Resogun, an excellent shoot ‘em up. The second is Contrast, the debut title from Canadian developer Compulsion Games, and like the games mentioned above, Contrast is a game that could only come from the indie scene. After all, how many other games will allow you to take control of a young girl’s imaginary friend?
"The story starts simply, but grows increasingly complex as the game goes on, and a large part of Contrast’s appeal lies in discovering what will happen next. Thankfully, the game spins its yarn well. The characters are largely complex and well-acted, and the story moves from one plot point to the next in a very organic fashion."
The game opens in a girl’s bedroom in 1920s Paris. Didi, the girl in question, is being tucked into bed by her mother, Kat, the star of the cabaret at a local club called the Ghost Note. Kat makes Didi promise not to sneak out while she’s away and Didi agrees to stay in. Of course, that wouldn’t make for a very interesting game, and Didi is soon sneaking through the night so she can watch her mother perform, and perhaps visit her estranged father. Didi isn’t alone, however. She’s got Dawn with her, an imaginary friend with the ability to become a shadow in brightly lit areas. What Dawn does affects the real world, and you’ll find yourself helping Didi as she gets far too involved in the very adult problems her parents are struggling with.
The story starts simply, but grows increasingly complex as the game goes on, and a large part of Contrast’s appeal lies in discovering what will happen next. Thankfully, the game spins its yarn well. The characters are largely complex and well-acted, and the story moves from one plot point to the next in a very organic fashion.
There are some genuinely touching moments here, and couple of well-executed plot twists as well, and it’s easy to become invested in the plight of Didi and her family. While the game does make use of many well-worn achetypes – gangsters, showgirls, illusionists, and con artists – it does so without resorting to clichés, and manages to present a fairly well-realized and believable world, despite the occasional bit of iffy dialogue.
"Dawn’s powers are the highlight of Contrast’s gameplay. She has the ability to roam the game’s 3D world, but the best parts take place when she’s traversing the game’s walls as a shadow. Contrast’s most exciting moments will have you quickly transitioning from one to another, manipulating objects in the real world so that you can use them in the shadow world, and vice versa."
And what a world Contrast creates. The game’s art style is captures the noir feeling perfectly, and environments and characters are rendered beautifully. Contrast also does a good job of presenting different and unique environments for Dawn to traverse and interact with. The accompanying musical score is a low, jazzy mix, and does the nearly impossible job of capturing the time period and locales perfectly, though special mention must be made of Laura Ellis’ superb vocal work.
The game’s shadows are equally impressive, which is important, since you’ll spend so much time interacting with them. In an interesting artistic decision, only Dawn and Didi are rendered as 3D models, while the other characters appear as shadows throughout the world. It’s an interesting visual technique that the game pulls off with aplomb, and it goes a long way in adding to Dawn’s status as an imaginary friend who is only real to Didi, and can only interact with the world in a limited fashion.
Dawn’s powers are the highlight of Contrast’s gameplay. She has the ability to roam the game’s 3D world, but the best parts take place when she’s traversing the game’s walls as a shadow. Contrast’s most exciting moments will have you quickly transitioning from one to another, manipulating objects in the real world so that you can use them in the shadow world, and vice versa. The controls are tight and responsive on both a controller and a keyboard, and the platforming never stops being fun. Unfortunately, it’s easy for Dawn to get stuck on objects in the environment, especially when she’s in the 3D world, or to be simply knocked out of the shadow sections for seemingly arbitrary reasons, which can be problematic when you’re using shadows to run over a gap. The former occurrences can often be escaped by using Dawn’s dash ability, and the game never punishes you for dying, so these are minor complaints, but they can get frustrating over time.
"Contrast is an intriguing and enjoyable title with a host of good gameplay ideas, fantastic visuals, beautiful music and an interesting and heartfelt story to tell, despite the odd technical issue and any complaints about its length."
Thankfully, the game’s puzzles and platforming sections are often very clever and fun to solve, and the game does a good job in keeping the environments varied, so you won’t often find yourself asked to do the same thing more than a few times. For instance, one section might have Dawn taking over the role of a princess in a shadow puppet show that Didi’s father is presenting, while another will task you with fixing a pirate ride at the local fair. The game also features sections that require Dawn to jump on shadows that appear straight out of the story’s cutscenes to reach a hidden area or item, which provide challenges of their own, though it should be noted that Contrast is never too hard. The game’s puzzles, while clever in terms of design, are often pretty simple, which means that the real challenge comes nailing the difficult jumps in the platforming sections.
The lack of difficulty is compounded by Contrast’s other problem: its length. I completed the game in about three hours after having done nearly everything, and while there are collectibles and secrets to find, many of which are necessary to completely understand the game’s narrative, they don’t add much replay value. This is problematic considering the game’s fifteen dollar price tag, which seems steep for the amount of content on offer.
Still, Contrast is an intriguing and enjoyable title with a host of good gameplay ideas, fantastic visuals, beautiful music and an interesting and heartfelt story to tell, despite the odd technical issue and any complaints about its length. Compulsion Games has crafted an interesting, unique, and compelling world with their first game, no small feat considering the quality of indie games on the scene today, and Contrast can stand next to those titles proudly as an indie game worth playing.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Intriguing and well told story. Fantastic visual design. Beautiful soundtrack. Varied environments and puzzles. Platforming is a lot of fun. Lots of unique ideas.
Puzzles are a little too easy. It’s easy for Dawn to get stuck in the environment or knocked out of shadow form. Only about three hours long. Premium pricing.