Contrast is an interesting game. I wish it were a better game, because the setting is great, the characters are interesting and the soundtrack did something that few others do: it caused me to stop playing, so that I could better appreciate the music. It’s held down, though, by what all games need to be successful: gameplay.
Contrast is a puzzle-platformer. The twist here is that Dawn, the player character, can merge into the shadows to reach otherwise-inaccessible areas. It’s on the 2D plane that the platforming shines, and it is here that the game is at its best. Making changes to the 3D world lead the changes in the shadows cast on various walls, which allow Dawn to get where she needs to be in order to move forward. You’ll find yourself turning on a carousel, so that you can climb the moving shadows of the horses and get on top of the same carousel. From there, you’ll enter a nearby building and move the story forward. The whole sequence feels good from all perspectives.
Others don’t, though. If you can move something, then you know you have to in order to progress. If you see a blocky yellow ledge, then that’s one of the few you can grab on to and pull yourself up. And if you see a side area, then you’re sure to find a collectible there just before the dead end which routes you straight back to the critical path. And even when the platforming serves the narrative, it’s not well-implemented.
Dawn routinely slips off of ledges forcing you to redo platforming segments, and when you run into problems Contrast doesn’t ever give out hints. The puppet show is particularly troublesome. There is precisely one solution, and despite a narrator who could easily help you out when you fall without breaking the fourth wall too much, you’ll just hear the same lines over and over again while you still have absolutely no idea what to do to move forward.
Everything that isn’t gameplay is great, though, and it makes me sad that it’s not wrapped up in a nicer package. The characters are complex, flawed individuals, and what they’re going through is worth seeing. The visual style is great, particularly the use of light and shadow. And the soundtrack is top-notch. I found myself listening to the entire song that plays at the menu screen, and I stuck around well after the exposition was over to hear a cabaret singer belt out a tune. Contrast has a lot going for it, but rough mechanics regularly snap you out of the immersion.
Pros: Great 1920s aesthetic with good use of light and shadow
Cons: Slippery controls, lack of guidance when you get stuck on a puzzle