Wot I Think: Contrast

By Alec Meer on November 15th, 2013 at 6:00 pm.

An appropriate title indeed. ‘Contrast‘ refers to the fact this platformer (of sorts) involves switching between light and shadow in order to solve puzzles, and to the disparity between the glitz and glamour of old Paris’ surface and the thuggery and domestic disharmony beneath such Moulin Rouge trappings. Sadly, and unintentionally, it’s all too easy to take it to mean the contrast between Contrast’s appealing style and concept, and its humdrum, chore-like reality.

Contrast is potentially gaining more attention than it otherwise would or deserves due to also being a PS4 launch title. To quickly address that first, it’s very hard not to scoff about ‘next-generation’ going on this, as in both appearance and ingenuity it’s the kind of game that could have arrived any time in the last half-decade without any particular sock-knocking.

Definitely an appealing art style, all sepia and doll-like characters, but otherwise it’s a fairly brass tacks use of the Unreal engine which looks far ropier on PC than it needs to due to a lack of useful graphical options like anti-aliasing1. Even despite all the yellow-tinged lighting, vaudeville style and the use of vast, towering shadows, it’s a very empty-looking game that’s propped up rather than merely adorned by its languorous cabaret soundtrack.

In this ghostly 20s Paris, you play the impossibly thin dancer Dawn, husky-toned, innuendo-spouting imaginary2 friend of only slightly precocious latchkey kid Didi. Only Didi and Dawn are seen, as such – everyone else in the world appears as chatty shadows, projected dramatically and often evocatively against the walls their presumably real-world casters are stood or sat near. Explained or no, it’s a good trick for both style and atmosphere, and for lending you the sense of being a ghost, passing unseen through the drama but invisibly pull its strings. Primarily the supporting cast consists of Didi’s warring parents and the assortment of gangsters, dames and lounge acts who circle around them, with you eavesdropping on their conversations and conflicts in between bouts of puzzle-solving.

This puzzle-solving entails switching Dawn into a shadow form, whereby the game camera changes from slightly clunky 3D to better-realised 2D and she can jump, run and short-range teleport across other shadows. A streetlight beaming onto a bicycle wheel creates an enormous revolving half-crescent on a wall, which shadow-Dawn can use to reach a high balcony, for instance. Occasionally, and in Contrast’s strongest moments, such puzzles are blended with cutscenes, as enormous shadows of conversing characters create living, moving platforms to move between, the story telling itself even as its shade-like performers carry you to the next goal or obstacle.

These scenes are truly striking, a dark world alive and fluid and a pleasure simply to navigate, but sadly they’re irregular and brief, and overshadowed3 by tedious, thankless busywork which feels like the greatest hits of Uninspired Mainstream Game Design, circa 2003-2013.

Crate-pushing, precision jumping, locked door-opening, crane puzzles, put this series of objects in these exact places in this exact order or fall to the bottom of the screen and have to do it all again. Sometimes the game even openly confesses it’s simply demanding that you do chores without reward – ‘fix the projector’, ‘fix the spotlights’, ‘open this door for Didi’ and on and on and why? Because, that’s why.

The bulk of the puzzles require pushing crates, wooden standees, popcorn carts and an assortment of other crates-by-any-other-name around a rear-lit room in order to scale and reposition shadows which may then be used as ramps and platforms. It’s charming first time around, grating by the third and feels like punishment by the sixth. God forbid I hold up the Skinner box as a necessity of design, but the complete lack of reward for these mundane tasks kills all desire to want to do more of them. Why did I fix the projector? Because the game told me to. What did this involve? Pushing some glorified crates around to make a staircase up to it, then pressing a single button to repair it. What happened when I did? It told me to go somewhere else. Contrast feels fundamentally purposeless throughout – there’ll be a short, vaguely confusing cutscene for every few tasks, but otherwise the game feels like doing the washing-up as someone silently deposits an endless stream of new dirty plates in the sink. What happens when I’ve finished? There’ll be no more mess. And that’s all.

Even when the requirement isn’t brazenly an order to go do your chores or you’ll be sent to bed without supper, Contrast is constructed from fiddly and frustrating jump puzzles, of the sort which involve an awful lot of falling down and repeating yourself, and the only outcome of which is just to do another one just like it. The Why They Kept Having To Reboot Tomb Raider Paradigm, if you will.

Again, Contrast feels almost an archetypal launch title (much as that’s obviously irrelevant on PC, where it feels simly throaway) – the high concept, eye-catching platformer that makes it look like the new machine is awash with jolly, pleasantly outlandish things for everyone to play, but the reality is you trudge through a couple of faintly aggravating hours then forget all about it. Except here, the game only lasts about four hours anyway, so you’ll probably feel cheated before you feel bored.

Tonally, Contrast is consistently inconsistent too. It’ll haphazardly jump between being a game in which a chatty, urgent Didi gives instructions to a silent, dutiful Dawn, and one in which Dawn sporadically and cheesily spouts come-hither double-entendres at the player. Who’s the narrator here? Is there a fourth wall or isn’t there? Is Dawn an accomplished athlete and aesthete and role model to Didi, or is she is a sexy doll who exists only to titillate a male player?

Much as going all-out to be the latter would have created new, even greater problems, at least the game’s intentions would have been clear. Instead it feels as though there was no clear direction, like hasty scraps of dialogue were dropped in at random by six different people after the rest of the game was finished.

It’s a struggle to stop myself thinking that a small indie team with a quarter of the budget could have done so much better, might have put more emphasis on sustained ingenuity rather than routine, hollow jump puzzles to drape a bit of a flash over the top of. Realistically, a small team could have screwed this up just as easily as could a much larger one. In any case, what’s here is, like its twiggy protagonist, far too thin.

Contrast is out now

Footnotes

1. I wound up using third-party shader effects tool SweetFX (specifically the GUI-blessed SweetFX Configurator) to force some anti-aliasing on. I’m not usually quite so fussy, but all those jagged edges were particularly distracting in game where everyone’s limbs are this thin and the main character is wearing vertically-striped tights.
2. Or is she, etc? Oddly the game rarely says much its shadow-world aspects and the true nature of Dawn. To some degree, magic realism is a smarter way to approach such fantasy than open exposition would be, but Contrast fumbles even this sense of mystery or awe by simply dropping you straight in without even the faintest set-up, confused from the first moment of play. I do wonder if the game’s shortness suggests more elaboration was at one point intended.
3. I could say ‘no pun intended’, but I’d be lying.

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52 Comments »

  1. Megakoresh says:

    What a shame. The game looked quite exciting. :/

  2. Viroso says:

    I’d have preferred those notes with the rest of the text. I ended up reading them anyways. I see the little number I need to click it to see what it says else I’ll feel like I’m missing relevant information AND my video game completionist impulses will just itch like crazy if I don’t. So I’ll read them anyways only difference is that now I have to click the button and then click return, it’s too much clicking to get somewhere like if you guys installed Windows 8 on the article.

    Not to mention the spoilers when my eyes are drawn to the note below. Yeah spoilers. Laugh at me.

    • emotionengine says:

      I have to say I agree with this. I don’t see why the footnotes couldn’t have been integrated into the main body of the text. It’s not like you have chosen to include a boatload of citations and references that would somehow justify the use of footnotes, and jumping back and forth is cumbersome and frankly quite annoying.

      • SillyWizard says:

        Maybe it ups the page-views.

      • Tams80 says:

        I think it’s more to do with keeping the flow of the text. I think either the Alec or an editor decided that they just wouldn’t fit, yet should still be mentioned.

        Now whether that was the right decision is of course subjective. I think at least the anti-aliasing wouldn’t have fit in well. Alec would have been hung were this an academic paper though (but markers for those live in ivory towers and that is an argument for another day).

        • Viroso says:

          Yeah, the SweetFX wouldn’t fit. Maybe as a brief mention but not that much. I think the rest though. And for me at least, notes break flow.

    • tormos says:

      At this point I’m pretty sure RPS inserts new features purely to mess with readers. See also: pull quotes

    • eclipse mattaru says:

      I find it hard to take their snarky, picky reviews seriously when the website itself keeps getting more and more annoying to navigate due to poorly implemented, amateur and perplexingly pointless features like this.

      • Nicodemus Rexx says:

        Ehn. It is a bit odd when you put it that way, but I would assume that you don’t need a head for web-design as a prerequisite for reviewing a video game. I could be wrong, though. Web-design may be a journalistic must in this modern era. I’m not a web journalist, so I’m sure someone who knows more about it will correct me shortly if that’s the case. :3

        Either way though, this Footnote thing feels like a sylistic choice that Alec has made lately, regardless of whether or not it’s a feature that’s supposed to be used the way he’s using it. He may soon get bored of it and then everyone will forget it was ever a thing.

        Or he may not. Personally I don’t feel like his overall ability to write has been THAT effected by it. But you know… personal opinions and all that.

    • BooleanBob says:

      It’s a typically good Alec Meer review and a very pleasant ~wakey wakey~ Saturday am read, but I have to agree – the footnotes really are just arbitrary, flow-mangling busy work. Which is ironic when you consider that’s exactly what this game was torn apart for including.

    • Rikard Peterson says:

      I don’t mind footnotes, but the implementation of these is unwieldy. I’d like to second what someone wrote in a comment on an earlier article (sorry, I don’t know who wrote it and which article it was, and I’m not going to wade through two weeks of comments to find it):

      Ideally, footnotes should be implemented like on What if? – xkcd. (As an aside, I very much recommend this xkcd spinoff site.)

      Alternatively, putting the content of the footnote in the title tag of the html link would be a simple solution that’s a lot more useable than the current solution.

    • SuicideKing says:

      I’ve just started reading scientificgamer.com today, and i think they’re taking inspiration from what that guy does (it’s a blog)…except he has a link to jump back to the point where the number is written in the main text.

    • Nicodemus Rexx says:

      I’ve just been opening the footnotes in a new tab and trying reeeaaally hard not to spoil them with my eyes when I click over.

      Definitely not ideal, but (probably?) a little better than reloading the page a bunch of times; assuming your browser (effectively) supports doing that sort of thing. :3

  3. Darth Grabass says:

    It’s probably worth noting that Contrast is free on the PS4, which may lessen that feeling of being cheated. Resogun is the other free PS4 launch title.

    • sirdavies says:

      it’s not free on PC, which is the platform this review is made from and aimed at.

      • Darth Grabass says:

        Yes, I’m aware of that, but the reviewer led the article by noting that it is a PS4 launch title. So, as I said, I thought it might be worth mentioning that it was free on that console. I haven’t owned a gaming console since Colecovision, so I personally couldn’t care less about the PS4.

    • Viroso says:

      Also, Contrast has been on development for a long time now, at least some two years, given it’s history I wouldn’t call it a console launch title. This game went through a bunch of changes over a long time until it finally became what it is today.

      Also, in some interviews I read Compulsion Games says they’re a small team. Anyway, here’s a video of the game how it used to be. Skip to 19s if you want to see gameplay

      There’s also another video from March 2012, the first one for the game, where they ask for Greenlight votes, I’d say it started as a PC indie game. I hope the current context of next gen consoles and whatnot didn’t color this review.

    • SillyWizard says:

      Wrong place.

    • welverin says:

      It’s free for PS+ subscribers, not free. Slight , but important distinction.

      • Deadly Sinner says:

        I think they get a free month of PS+ with their console, so free for a month, basically.

    • Caiman says:

      Why couldn’t we have gotten Resogun instead? :sadface:

  4. SillyWizard says:

    So…autism?

  5. DreamCleaver says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Alec. Most puzzles after the first few times get frustrating fast and you get no sense of reward, as noted in the article.

    According to Steam, it took me around 2 hours to finish the game. The game costs you ~£6/hour. Hardly worth the £12 (or £9 at GMG, with the 25% voucher) price tag.
    I’d wait for a sale.

    • GameCat says:

      Once someone asked me if I want to buy some paintings, but then I calculated the price and it was like €2 per square centimetre. I laughed at that guy and bought a toilet paper for €0,01 per square centimetre instead.

      • Tams80 says:

        An old man once wanted to exchange some magic beans for my cow, but then I calculated the price and it was like 45.74kg of cow (1) (2) (EBLEX, 2013: p13) per bean. I laughed at the old man and sold the cow for £0.93 per kg (2) (EBLEX, 2013: p13, p21) instead.

        (1) Cow used here is defined as a heifer.
        (2) Assumptions are made that the cow is of average weight. It was, unfortunately undernourished as we were poor.

        EBLEX (2013). UK Yearbook 2013 – Cattle, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.

        • Suits says:

          Does this magic bean salesman reside downstream Zora River by any chance? Keep an eye on him when you decide to trade for his products. Even though the quality is alright, he raises the prices before you know it.

          • Tams80 says:

            Indeed it was. He offered me seven magic beans. What exchange rate can I expect next time I encounter him?

            He looked very dodgy.

    • jon_hill987 says:

      Look at it as 4 pints of beer instead of £6 an hour.

      • The Random One says:

        But how long does it take you to dring 4 pints of beer? *scribbles madly on math notebook*

      • n0m0n says:

        This is exactly what I do whenever I decide what to pay for my humble bundles!

        I simply ask myself: “How many pints of beer would I rather have than these games?” Then I put the price just below what I’d have to pay for the beer, and I know I paid the perfect price!

    • Stardog says:

      Edited.

  6. DanMan says:

    Hmmm. I have this on my Steam whishlist. Good thing i forgot about it. Maybe I’ll buy it in a sale anyway for the visual concept. Or maybe I won’t. *shrugs*

  7. loquee says:

    hmmm, that was actually my favourite game from gamescom, but I just played the first 20 minutes or so.
    I agree that it felt a little old in every aspect, but the core gameplay element was a delight and I really loved the atmosphere + art style.
    Since my gaming backlog is already ridiculous thanks to the humble weekly sales and steam, I´ll get this when it is 50% off, or maybe even 33%.

  8. SillyWizard says:

    I finally just watched the trailer.

    “…you’re a carousel of broken dreams!”

    …pass.

  9. hypercrisis says:

    Honestly, the faux-20s aesthetic put me off. It’s so played out by now that to see the gimmick yet again just seems uninspired

    • Ninja Dodo says:

      Genuinely curious: How is it played out? I don’t remember seeing other games in this specific setting. Or are you referring to Bioshock, which is neither 20s nor Paris?

      • Suits says:

        Maybe if you consider a 40-year difference, to be in the same ball park and have a real twisted view of Frenchmen being crazy people with hooks for hands.

      • Ninja Dodo says:

        Maybe the Art Deco? By that rationale Bioshock is derivative of Grim Fandango… If you want to be really generous with the old-timey label you could say Fallout, I guess? But that’s 50s Americana. I’m struggling to think of examples, seriously.

        • cthulhie says:

          It’s all those post-WWI shooters that have been all the rage recently. You know the ones–you’re sent to patrol a peaceful region in the 1920s, and the locals welcome you and play jazz music for you and you never have to unholster your gun. “Reparation shooters” I think they’re called.

          So sick of that fad.

  10. Shadowcat says:

    I think the trailers are fantastic, and if it’s only four hours long I can’t see myself getting especially tired of it. Seriously, for $15 that looks like a winner, despite the gameplay concerns. It looks like it requires Steam though, so I’ll pass until that changes.

  11. Ricass says:

    “It’ll haphazardly jump between being a game in which a chatty, urgent Didi gives instructions to a silent, dutiful Dawn, and one in which Dawn sporadically and cheesily spouts come-hither double-entendres at the player.”

    When does Dawn speak? I’m pretty sure she’s silent for the whole game.

  12. crinkles esq. says:

    Considering the emphasis on visual style, it’s a shame that the character animations are so stiff. There’s no way to really avoid players seeing that as the shadows put movement front-and-center. I had noticed this in the preview videos, but hoped they would have cleaned that up. It’s an interesting gameplay premise, but perhaps it was rushed to make the PS4 launch?

  13. daphne says:

    ‘as in both appearance and ingenuity it’s the kind of game that could have arrived any time in the last half-decade without any particular sock-knocking.’

    We’ll be hearing this a lot… that’s just the realty of this particular (and the last?) next-gen.

  14. cpt_freakout says:

    Well, the visuals looked moderately interesting, so it’s too bad that’s pretty much all there is to it. Thanks for the WIT, though!

  15. Suits says:

    At least it has Adam Jensen as the dad.

  16. Ninja Dodo says:

    Even if some reviews, this one included, are a bit down on it, I’m still really curious to try this out. Love the atmosphere.

  17. noname says:

    So, I don’t know what happened here, but I just finished the game, and I didn’t hear Dawn speak at all.

    I thought it was pretty good, for as short as it was.
    I had a few rough patches with the platforming, and the kid could get annoying, but I really do love the look of this game, and the story was decent, I thought.

    The collectibles and the lighthouse sure raised more questions than they answered, though. I’d love to see a bit more exposition there.

    • smilingahab says:

      If you idle in a few of the levels, Dawn will urge the player to hurry up in unexpectedly erotic undertones.

  18. Stardog says:

    I don’t like the price bashing in this article.

  19. ghoststalker194 says:

    Although I agree with most of the points in this review, I acually did really like the game. It had a Bioshock Infinite -ish feel. Where story and admospher overtake gameplay. I found myself coming back to this game, really wanting to know how it was going to continue. Price wise though, I’d pay about 10 bucks for it max.

  20. smilingahab says:

    “Is Dawn an accomplished athlete and aesthete and role model to Didi, or is she is a sexy doll who exists only to titillate a male player?”
    Both.

    Explained or no, ”

    It is though. The last ten minutes explains it all, though its through posters on the wall and scattered collectibles in the final level. It really does pull a Bioshock Infinite at the end. Throughout the whole game really.

    I found the puzzles interesting, and for the early adopter price, it was a fun few hours, with corny diologue providing chuckles between admiring Dawn and the psychotic landscape. It would have been better if the game weren’t so steadfastly a one-trick horse – Portal they’ll never be because Portal wasn’t trying to be Portal; they could have fleshed out a much more interesting story and done their own thing and the game would have stood out much better.