Puzzle platformers are a gaming subgenre that I’ve had my eye on ever since I first discovered the joys of Portal. I’ve had some good and bad experiences with a few other titles in their fields, but few have pulled me in so completely as when I first saw the trailer for Contrast. I fell for its noir ethos and its black shadows set against orange lighting in a cool urban environment, as well as the deeper story being hinted at.
In the game, you play Dawn, the imaginary friend of a little girl named Didi Malenkaya. Didi’s father ran off, leaving her nightclub singer mother to fend for herself. One night, as Didi and Dawn follow her mother around the city, they unravel the mystery behind Didi’s missing father, the gangsters he’s involved with, and the circus he’s trying to put together that’ll erase his debts and make everything better for his family. All while Dawn hops in and out of shadows, making Didi’s wishes come true and bringing her family back together once more.
Here’s what I got out of my playthrough of Contrast.
A very cool, imaginative atmosphere.
The way this game looks and sounds is phenomenal. From the sharp definition of every shadow to the jazzy soundtrack (even in the intro screen), Contrast has a distinct tone that evokes an older setting and time. I love the silhouetted nightclub singers, the gangsters, and the world-renowned illusionists who populate this nutty little noir world.
A silent protagonist with a twist.
Another cool thing is the way our player character, Dawn, is established. She first appears in the context of being Didi’s imaginary friend—something we can relate to most kids having at one time or another. However, as time goes on, we begin to see that Dawn has a lot more control over the physical world than any mere figment of a little girl’s imagination. She also, as it turns out, has a very relevant backstory that ties into Didi’s troubled family history, but we don’t really find this out until close to the end of the game.
Shadow-jumping that’s good and not so good.
On paper—and in the first time playing it—the idea of jumping in and out of shadows is pretty awesome. Much like using momentum to play with the environment in Portal, the shadows in Contrast use light and angles to create a whole new environment for Dawn to traverse and manipulate. Plus, any game that really knows how to use chiaroscuro is going to be fantastic in my book.
But then there are the actual puzzles and jumps that make up the core gameplay mechanic. Much like Limbo, you have to get through a mostly 2D setting with a keen sense of timing and moving objects in and out of shadow to get from Point A to Point B, or to avoid the deadly trap around Point C.
For me, that’s where I had the most frustration. I’m not a fan of the millisecond-precise timing that this game often demands, not to mention some of the jumps or boundaries aren’t so clear, even though it’s dark shadow set against bright lights. Of course, once you know the controls (and don’t face too many glitches, like at the end), the game goes very fast.
A game that requires and rewards your imagination
After a few hours of gameplay, I find the world and story of Contrast to be a nice romp, bouncing between shadows and the colorful world, as well as the worlds of both children and adults. While I did have some trouble with the gameplay, I don’t think it hurts the game at all and most players will probably get a lot of enjoyment out of the puzzles and shadow-jumping mechanic. It’s an experience where I could just sit and be engrossed in the chiaroscuro effects all day long.
Bibliography: Contrast (video game). Developed by Compulsion Games. Published by Focus Home Interactive. Unreal Engine 3 (engine). Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One (platforms). US release date: November 15, 2013.