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.Continued on the next page...