Contrast Review: Now That’s Not Thinking with Shadows

contrast-headerIt’s only appropriate that a game whose review on Valentine’s Day has a love story. Okay, that’s probably a bit of a stretch when it comes to Contrast seeing as the game is a puzzle platformer where a man trying to win back his family is only really of minimal importance to the game. However, it’s there so I’m calling Contrast an appropriate game to review today.

When Contrast was released, it certainly carried some big expectations. While Compulsion Games was a rookie developer, the game had been selected as one of two free games on PlayStation 4 at launch for PlayStation Plus members. Was Contrast worthy of such a distinction as being on of Sony’s featured launch titles?

In Contrast, you play as a woman who remains nameless for the vast majority of the game (you learn her name in Act III) who is the imaginary friend (again, until Act III) of a little girl named Didi.

As Dawn, Didi’s friend, you help her navigate levels (and solve puzzles to do so) so she can reunite with her father who her mother had kicked some time ago. Her father seems to be fond of get-rich-quick schemes and wants to make a better life for Didi and her mother but is far too inept to execute anything correctly so Didi needs to fix his problems for him. And by Didi fixing problems, I mean she points out what needs to be done and gets Dawn to do the problem solving.

contrast-screenshot-02The unique aspect of puzzle platforming is that Dawn can move in both 2D and 3D planes as she can blend into the shadows along a brightly lit wall and navigate the world that way. Most puzzles in the game involve mixing navigation between two and three-dimensions and using light and shadows to navigate in the 2D shadow realm.

At first, figuring out how to solve puzzles takes a bit of thinking. Light and shadow placement is the first tricky bit to wrap your head around. Then it’s moving objects in and out of the shadows to navigate them to where they need to be. And that’s about it. Once you wrap your head around those two tricks, the puzzles don’t really get more complex than that. There was one puzzle that stumped me enough I had to look it up on YouTube because the answer was quite unintuitive. Once I learned that trick early in Act II, I was good to go for the rest of the game.

The biggest problem with this game is that Contrast is buggier the floor under the bed of a cheap motel. The game doesn’t punish you by being difficult but punishes you by frustrating you to the point of submission. I almost did. I got to one part (fixing a pirate ship ride) that bugged out with such frequency that I stopped playing for a week. Not just Contrast but all games. Didn’t even want to turn on Steam, I was that angry at games.

The most common one was getting kicked out of the shadows for no particular reason. To get through a thin, otherwise impassable column of shadow, you have to use Dawn’s charge ability. It’s a short dash command that’s used twice to break through fences and then relegated to the occasional use in shadows. However, using the dash in shadows occasionally kicks you out of shadows, back into the 3D realm and causes you to fall to your death.

Sometimes, you get kicked out of the shadows while just doing your standard shadow platforming. I don’t really understand what’s happening sometimes. I wish the game was more consistent in when it seemed to send you to an untimely death but it’s not. That does make the game extremely frustrating at times.

contrast-screenshot-03And about that pirate ship. At one point, you have to drop a ball into a tube by getting an arcade style crane to pick it up. I put the ball too close to the crane button and the crane missed. I couldn’t move the ball from that point because anytime the Interact button prompt activated, it was for the crane button but not the ball. No matter what I did, that ball was stuck there so I had to reload my last save.

There was also the time I was carrying that same ball as a shadow on the wall. When I came out of the shadows, I stayed to the wall as a 3D object. Fortunately, I freed myself by clipping to the bottom of existence. That didn’t kill me. I had to reload.

Still, the bugs allowed me to skip a puzzle. I used the aforementioned charge ability to skip a section of a puzzle that was supposed to be a lot longer than I did it. Rather than take the long way, I ran up a bit in the shadows, spammed the charge button, clipped through a railing and I’ve save 30 seconds of my life. It kind of defeats the purpose of a puzzle game if you can break the puzzles rather than solve them.

The bugs are exacerbated by a terrible checkpointing system. If you die (almost always by falling), you get set back a little bit and it doesn’t really affect you much. However, if you get stuck because of a bug, you get sent back to the most recent save point.

With some of the aforementioned bugs that forced me to hit the restart from last save button, it set me back upwards of 15 or 20 minutes. That’s entering two different areas from where I started. I solved two puzzles to reach a loading screen before getting bugged long before that. There were three logical checkpoints to reset you to but Contrast sets you back painfully far.

contrast-screenshot-01At least the game was fairly pretty to look at. The settings of early 1900s Paris made for some lovely environments. Well, I call it 1900s Paris but many parts of it were designed with a sort of dreamlike whimsy with broken landscape and buildings floating in the air. Sure, that makes the puzzles more interesting but it also allows for telling the story of a broken family and Didi’s father trying to mend it with the environment as a metaphor for the family’s narrative.

The design is sort of film noir and burlesque inspired. The environments are all very stylized that are both gritty in terms of colouring but simultaneously seeming cartoon/comic bookish in the actual structure designs. The colour palate is fairly muted with the majority of the game presented in the yellow and brown ranges. The graphics are really a highlight of this game.

I should also mention the interesting design choice of Didi and Dawn being the only fully 3D characters. Everyone else is presented as shadows on the wall. It adds to the dreamlike nature of the rest of the design. The shadow effects are great and surprisingly not taxing on my hardware which allows for both the gameplay and narrative elements in the shadows to look great. If only the shadows worked great too.

Conclusion

contrast-screenshot-04Well, the potential Contrast had was off the charts. It was let own on both the design and execution side of gameplay. While the graphics and audio are fine, Contrast was let down by puzzle design that doesn’t really evolve beyond a couple of tricks introduced early in the game and so many bugs.

I wanted to like this game but Compulsion made it nearly impossible. Even months later after patching the game, there are so many bugs that you can’t really rate this game very highly. I really wanted to give this game a high mark and use it as another example of amazing game development. Instead, I was just left frustrated by all the potential left on the table.

Rating: 5.0/10

Contrast was reviewed on Windows PC but is also available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and Xbox 360. Your impressions of the game may differ based on platform played on, PC specs and whether any further patches actually eliminate glitches.

Cross-posted from et geekera. For more from et geekera, follow us on FacebookTwitterGoogle+Tumblr and RSS.

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