The interplay of light and shadow has been a staple of video games for many years. Some games use light and shadow for drama or ambiance, while others use them as a dynamic part of the gameplay itself. Compulsion Games’ puzzle-platformer Contrast attempts to mesh these two approaches together, and although it makes a few missteps, it succeeds in providing action-tolerant gamers with a polished, clever gameplay experience where light and shadow take center stage.
The silent protagonist of Contrast is Dawn, a leggy cabaret dancer who finds herself standing in the bedroom of Didi, a little girl whose family – composed of a nightclub-singing mother named Kat and her estranged father Johnny – is falling apart at the seams. The initial cutscene serves to introduce Didi and her troubled family, as well as the interwoven narrative use of light and shadow: although Dawn and Didi are fully visible to you as the player, Kat (and as it turns out, all the other supporting characters as well) is only seen as a shadow on the wall, oblivious to your presence as she puts her daughter to bed. Being a rather mischievous little girl, however, Didi soon escapes out her bedroom window, beckoning you, her seemingly imaginary (or perhaps invisible) friend, to explore with her.
Once you join Didi on the rooftops outside, an in-game tutorial illustrates the game’s light and shadow-based spin on the platforming genre. In order to successfully navigate the 3D world, you must use Dawn’s ability to “shift” into 2D shadows scattered throughout the environment. Usually you'll first need to manipulate objects and light sources in order to, for example, project pathways on walls that Dawn can use to walk or jump across to reach previously inaccessible areas or complete various objectives for the less-capable Didi as she tries to bring her family back together again.
Besides the potential for innovative gameplay, the most compelling aspect of Contrast is its carefully designed atmosphere, due in part to an Art Deco aesthetic that influences the architecture, paintings, and even advertising posters found throughout the city. This is further enhanced by the game’s Jazz Age-inspired soundtrack. At the main menu, you're treated to a smooth jazz solo recorded by artist Laura Ellis, which perfectly sets the mood for the rest of the game. I can’t recall any other time where I have actually listened to a game’s entire title menu track twice through on my first playing session, and the developers deserve kudos for making even a typically utilitarian feature an enjoyable experience.
The high production values and rich atmosphere extend throughout the rest of the game as well. Contrast makes use of a muted, almost sepia-toned color palette when in dark areas. However, when a location or even a single surface (lit by a spotlight, for example) is cast in bright light, it becomes saturated with color. This attention-grabbing transition provides the player with a visual cue to the presence of one or more shadow-based puzzles in the area. Solving these puzzles either enables you to move forward in the game by removing or bypassing an obstacle, or allows you to collect glowing orbs of light called “luminaries,” which are used to power various pieces of machinery necessary to progress through each section.
The city in which the game takes place is highly reminiscent of early 1900s Paris or New York. Although compact in size, there are some interesting and colorful sights along the cobblestone-paved streets, including the Ghost Note nightclub and a movie theatre, among other locations that serve as settings for the game’s platforming activities. You'll also visit an intriguing circus attraction halfway through the game, complete with a pirate-themed roller-coaster ride that contains one of the game’s more creative environments.
Contrast is played from a third-person perspective, and its graphics are best described as photorealistic, though Didi’s character model has a lanky style reminiscent of the title character from the film Coraline. The frame rate and character animations are very smooth, which is helpful when precise control is necessary and lend a wonderfully fluid feel to the gameplay. Cutscenes are rendered entirely in-engine, and thankfully negate the use of static loading screens when entering a new environment, though screen fade-outs are used on occasion.
Sound effects such as dripping water and footsteps are extremely well-crafted, and the voice acting and direction, particularly that of Didi’s mother and father, are some of the best I’ve heard in a long time. More than once I found myself smiling at how expressive the characters were, despite being mere shadows on a wall. Aside from a few tunes that fade in to accent dramatic moments, Contrast’s music typically emanates from environmental sources, such as phonographs, nightclub bands, and circus attractions, providing the desired emotional effects of a soundtrack without becoming tiresome or distracting. In fact, there are numerous times when the music completely fades away, imparting a stark sense of loneliness and melancholy that, along with the city’s deserted streets, reinforces the game’s predominant themes.
As a long-time adventure gamer, I found the story to be an intriguing aspect of Contrast, and it actually complements the shadow-based nature of the puzzles quite well. Early in the game Didi comes to discover that, rather than having abandoned them as her mother claimed, her father was actually thrown out of the house because he is in debt to a group of mobsters. It is Didi’s hope that, by helping her father out of danger, Kat will allow him to come home. Being a child, it is impossible for her to help him by herself, but your shadow-shifting ability remedies this problem, and most of the tasks you are asked to perform in some way aid Didi’s father in his quest to pay back his deadly creditors.
The plot manages to stay interesting throughout the game, with a few well-paced twists and turns heightening the intrigue. I was initially disappointed that after being treated to a well-executed narrative that contains some genuinely surprising (and at times subtle) revelations about the nature of the city and its characters – especially Dawn – the story is capped with an all-too-abrupt ending that seemed to leave some questions unanswered. However, after a day or two of contemplation, it occurred to me that all of the answers are there, but require some time and reflection to fully understand. If nothing else, I was impressed that the story was powerful and intriguing enough to stick with me for several days after the game was over.
Although I lack a lot of experience with platforming games, the concepts required to master Contrast’s puzzles are easy to grasp, and the mouse and keyboard control scheme is fairly simple to understand in principle. The gamepad controls work well, but the mouse and keyboard option never seemed entirely intuitive to me, though my comfort with the controls did increase over time. Less dexterous gamers may have trouble coordinating their reflexes in order to quickly shift Dawn from 3D mode to 2D mode and back again during some of the more complex tasks, and gamers who are averse to timed puzzle sequences may also find one or two areas frustrating, but likely not impossible to complete.
Aside from one area that required a walkthrough for me to understand the objective, I found the standard platforming activities like running and jumping to be mostly forgiving, including the fact that many of the puzzles take place over solid ground, with little chance of death from falls. For the puzzles where you can fall into deadly traps, the game’s checkpoint system always sends you back to the point immediately preceding a failed jump or ledge-grab. Autosaves are also generous (there is no manual save system), though a few times I had to replay areas I had already mastered if I quit the game before solving a longer puzzle.
Contrast’s puzzles are mostly satisfying and fun to solve, although after a while they seem to keep relying on the same two or three tasks, such as using shadows cast around an interior wall to reach upper floors that would otherwise be impossible to jump to, finding luminaries to turn on various machines necessary to progress, or moving shadow-shifted objects from one part of the room to the other. Preventing this from becoming too tedious are the fun and varied environments, the compact world, and the overall game length, which I clocked at around seven to eight hours, taking my time and repeating several sections along the way. It's likely that more experienced action gamers will be able to complete the game even quicker. There are also a few unexpected puzzle twists interspersed throughout the game that break the mold and help to keep things interesting, such as a clever Super Mario Bros.-like sequence, and some interesting shadow-based takes on the well-worn, carry-the-box-onto-the-pressure-plate objective.
Although there are some collectable items scattered around the environment that flesh out the game’s story, these are fairly easy to locate for completists who wish to find everything the game has to offer, and do not seriously impact the overall length of the game. Some of the luminaries are also hidden or difficult to access, but most required ones are in readily-accessible areas and, much like the collectables, out-of-reach orbs do not constitute a significant challenge beyond understanding how to create and navigate shadows in order to find and gather them.
Even with its relatively minor issues, such as an abrupt ending and somewhat repetitive gameplay, it is clear that Contrast was a labor of love, and it shows in the amount of care taken in crafting the game’s enthralling environment. In general, the lower difficulty curve provided me with the perfect blend of brain-teasing challenge and a satisfying sense of forward progression that more difficult platformers can lack, and the end result is a game that I would not only describe as fun to play, but also a pleasure to experience. The intriguing story, great art direction, and interesting puzzles, combined with a smooth and bug-free presentation, added up to one of the most uniformly polished and atmospheric games I’ve come across in a long time, and for this reason I heartily recommend it for adventure fans who are not daunted by the prospect of a more platform-oriented title.
High production values and fun puzzle-platforming should put Contrast in a favorable light for action-tolerant adventure gamers.