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
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.