Contrast: New Year catch-up review

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  • Format: PS4 (version reviewed), PS3, 360, PC
  • Unleashed: Out Now
  • Publisher: Compulsion Games
  • Developer: Compulsion Games
  • Players: 1
  • Site: http://contrastgame.com/

Contrast is, perhaps, a victim of fortune. When DriveClub was inexplicably pulled from the PS4 launch schedule and thrown several months forward into 2014, something had to replace the scaled-down version promised for PlayStation Plus subscribers. That something turned out to be Contrast, an interesting-looking indie game that had until that point received minimal exposure. Perhaps we’ll never know if the final stages of development were rushed in order to meet the PS4 launch; but it certainly looks that way.

The premise is a unique mix of the prosaic and the fantastical. It’s a story about a broken marriage that just might get fixed, and the little girl caught in the middle. The girl in question, Didi, is present throughout the experience – but it’s not her that you control. You instead take control of Dawn, a mute female acrobat that only Didi can see. Although the two exist in the same world, the few people that you meet along the way are completely oblivious of Dawn and only appear as silhouettes, in keeping with the idea of two worlds melding in to one. That’s not to say that there’s no way to interact with these shadow figures.

Dawn’s nature is not even partially explained until the end of the game, but the important thing is that she can ‘shift’ – that is, instantly jump in and out of a shadow state herself, light and space permitting. Whilst silhouetted she can treat any and every other shadow as a solid object. This idea is used in some clever ways, including one memorable section where she jumps from horse to horse on the oversized shadow cast by a moving carousel.

In a nice touch, you can use people as moving platforms as they’re having conversations.

There are no enemies, this being in gameplay terms a fairly straight platform puzzler. The shadow mechanic is used in a handful of interesting ways – such as having to move objects toward, away from, or around a light source to manipulate the shadows cast – but a handful just isn’t enough when said mechanic is stretched out across the entire game (short though it may be). The ‘platform’ part of the equation suffers greatly, too, which drags the game down further. Dawn has no weight or friction to her when running or jumping and, worse, bugs and glitches ensure that if you manage to play the game start to finish without getting yourself stuck on a piece of scenery, it’ll be little short of a miracle.

The game feels unfinished not only on a technical level, but in terms of design too. The city is purposefully empty and lonely to support the themes of abandonment and isolation; that much is clear. To have huge chunks of gameplay with no music however is, when ambient sound effects are almost non-existent, a big mistake. The atmosphere therefore relies entirely on the art design and writing. Again mixing the everyday in with the wondrous, you’ll wander around the pleasingly early 20th Century streets while now and again finding that the ground abruptly comes to an end, bricks and dust trailing off into mid-air above the abyss. Not to mention, of course, the giant NPC shadows that sometimes appear on the walls that often give you a conversation to eavesdrop on.

What makes Contrast’s mistakes so painful is that the writing is actually very good. There are some very sharp lines in there, and more than once young Didi will come out with a casual remark about her troubled home life that will send a pang through all but the iciest of hearts. Not even the script is safe from the spectre of an impossible deadline, however. The ending – while by no means terrible – leaves a few important questions unanswered. Rather than leaving things ready for a sequel, it feels as though there should have been at least one more chapter.

It would be criminal to leave the music untouched here. As previously mentioned, it’s often absent; but when it’s there to be heard, it evokes a rich sense of poorly-lit lounges that stink of alcohol, tobacco, and broken dreams. The two standout tracks without a shadow of a doubt (no pun intended, yet gratefully received) are the ones featuring Laura Ellis, whose mesmerising, heaven-smooth vocals are unforgivably underused.

So, that’s Contrast. A story worth hearing with a soundtrack to die for, wrapped up in an often incompetent videogame. If you think you can fight through the problems to get some enjoyment out of this, then you’re probably right. There’s a great experience in there – but one that only ever shows through in patches.

critical score 6

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Written by Luke K

He plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. He doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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