Throughout the life of the PS3, Sony often let PSN play host to a number of thoughtful, beautifully crafted independent games. That tradition is carried on with the PlayStation 4. The release of the launch title Contrast once again illustrates Sony’s commitment to bringing unique gaming experiences to their console. But does developer Compulsion Games’ playful puzzler have what it takes to turn heads during the PS4 launch, or will it simply be lost like a shadow in the dark? Read on to find out.
Contrast is an extremely divisive game. On one hand, it has style, narrative impact and art direction that blow even the best triple-A games right back into the Atari days. On the other hand, it also features some of the most shamefully poor technical execution in any fairly high-profile game of recent memory. Enjoying this title requires the player overlook some pretty major shortcomings. However, those that can do so will almost certainly feel satisfied on some levels once the controller is put down.
Playing as a third-person platformer/puzzler, Contrast lets players inhabit the role of Dawn. Dawn is seemingly the only friend to young Didi, a courageous young girl whose desire to help put her family back together leads to her and Dawn embarking on an adventure to do just that. Dawn, who can only be seen by Didi, has the power to shift into a shadow and back again at will. This particular skill, which is also the game’s central mechanic, aid both Dawn and Didi in doing what is necessary to complete their mission. To go too in depth about the story would give far too much away, as the plot reveals itself in bite size pieces, and eventually takes a satisfying turn as it reaches the end.
What can be said, however, about the story is that it is excellent in its ability to wrap so much punch into such a tiny package. The game is fairly short, so Compulsion Games didn’t leave themselves much room for error. Thankfully, Contrast does more to deliver an emotionally engaging story than most games even come close to in play-through times that are three times as long. Themes of abandonment and relationship dynamics are conveyed subtly and with a delicate touch. Control, sacrifice and power within relationships, be they personal or business, are also themes that are met head on. What’s excellent is that the messaging is reinforced not only by cut-scenes, but by gameplay as well, similar to past indie darling, Limbo. Many of the puzzles find Dawn and Didi fixing or restoring something, and in doing so, the player brings them one step closer to fixing and restoring Didi’s family. By the end, Contrast comes full circle and delivers an experience that is both touching and bittersweet. Truly outstanding work.
Also outstanding is the game’s overall presentation. Featuring a 1920s and 30s art deco, Noir motif, with a splash of cabaret, Contrast looks like nothing else out there. It is both completely engrossing and completely upsetting that it doesn’t offer more to explore. Much like the recently released Rain, the time spent in this world feels far too brief, and any extra time allowed for soaking it all up would have been greatly appreciated. Contrast’s smoky jazz soundtrack also helps set the mood wonderfully. There isn’t a single asset in this game that isn’t working to transport the player back to its time and place. Additionally, it never gets old watching the silhouettes of random objects come to life and dance along the faces of buildings as Dawn leaps across them.
Unfortunately, Contrast breaks down when one actually tries to play the game. Working as both a 2D and 3D platformer, there are a few basic fundamentals that every player would expect that simply aren’t here. Dawn moves without any sense of precision or weight, and controlling her feels floaty and haphazard. Collision detection is terribly glitchy, and the worst technical offender, as Dawn will get hung up on objects constantly, or at times jump through them. The simple act of traversal isn’t even done right. Dawn has two speeds. One is a sultry saunter while the other is a full sprint. There is no middle ground. Letting off the analog stick while running doesn’t just slow her down, it nearly grinds her to a halt. Additionally, making matters worse, the camera zooms in and out when her speed changes and creates a jerky feeling for the majority of the playtime.
Similarly, the game’s puzzles also suffer from a lack of basic competence. Glitches galore allow players to essentially break puzzles, requiring a restart. Objectives that aren’t always clearly defined also add to the frustration. This may lead to players too often second guessing their strategy despite, often times, being correct in their approach. A puzzle game’s puzzles fail when poor mechanics, instead of pure challenge, stand in the way of completion. When not being held back by this utter sloppiness, the puzzles do give a sense of triumph and accomplishment. It’s just too bad that this occurs with such infrequency.
Every problem described here is a strike against foundational tenets of both platforming and puzzle solving games. For two genres that have been around for a long time, this is simply inexcusable. It’s staggering that these issues weren’t addressed through simple QA and play-testing. While the game may visually look like nothing else around, it also plays like nothing else around, but not in a good way. Dawn may have style that is silky smooth, but the chore of controlling her is an exercise in patience and masochism.
It’s painful to have to label Contrast with a low score. There is so much potential here. However, potential doesn’t make for a quality experience. It’s incredible that a game can succeed off the charts in one aspect, and fail so miserably in another. Yet, that is exactly what Contrast does. As a free launch title for PS Plus members, Contrast is worth a look, but those who are considering an actual purchase might want to hold-off. The story, characters, and aesthetic are incredible and have the power to linger with the player after the credits roll but it’s up to each player to decide whether or not getting to those credits is worth the headache of playing a game that feels unfinished.
Contrast is currently available for the PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and PC. The PS4 version was played for this review.