Contrast is the first game by indie developer Compulsion Games. It, along with Resogun, shares the distinction of being the one of the first free PlayStation Plus giveaways on the PlayStation 4. The title follows a young girl named Didi, who works to reunite her estranged parents with the help of her imaginary friend Dawn (the player controlled character). Dawn uses her ability to warp in and out of shadows to traverse the release's lush noir deco environment, helping Didi's father to clean up his act and make their family whole again.
There is an astounding degree of vagueness to the adventure. Things like the void – a bottomless pit that can be fallen into resulting in death – are just never explained, and their existence remains a mystery throughout the experience, resulting in no real reason for it to be there other than to punish the player.
The game relies heavily on puzzles and platforming, many of which revolve around Dawn warping into the shadow realm and using the shadows to traverse the walls of buildings. While the use of shadows like this offers a lot of room for creativity, the execution falls a little flat. Many games will hone in on one single mechanic and really build a game and world around it, but here, it doesn't really develop. After learning the basics, the title becomes slightly more challenging, and then rests on its laurels until the last twenty minutes or so, where it hammers the player with puzzles that are more frustrating than challenging. At least some interesting visuals come into play from the puzzles, like climbing up the shadows of a bicycle, which pedals are spinning ceaselessly, or hopping from shadow to shadow of projections from a carousel. However, these interesting moments aren't nearly frequent enough. Funnily enough, the mechanics are the strongest and most refreshing during a sequence of what appears to be a puppet show that could have been lifted straight from Limbo, complete with spiders.
The mechanics mostly work, but there are an appalling number of bugs still present in the game. Several issues that we encountered were game breaking, and necessitated restarts. Most of them seemed to stem from collision issues in the game. When picking up a cannonball for instance, rather than grab it, Dawn was launched straight up completely out of the skybox, and could not be brought back. Additionally, when getting too close to some walls, or trying to pick up a collectible, Dawn would frequently become stuck on the environment, requiring the use of a dash move to solve the problem.
The visuals, on the other hand, are easily the game's strongest area. While it certainly doesn't look pretty enough to be straining the PS4, it is just dripping in atmosphere. Apart from Didi and Dawn, every other character in the game only appears as a shadow, making for some genuinely incredible cutscenes using nothing but the silhouettes of characters. The rest of the game also looks great, be it the puddles of water on the ground reflecting the neon drenched city around them, or the seedy bars where mobsters cavort. When making a noir look, the visuals are only half of the battle, and the game's presentation wouldn't be complete without its music.
The score for the game – tackled wonderfully by composer Nicolas Marquis – helps to enhance the release in such a way that the audio and visuals alone make it worth experiencing. The best sequence of the game occurs when these two combine perfectly, where Didi's mother sings at a nightclub – handled beautifully by the talented jazz singer Laura Ellis – as the members of her band play around her. On the other hand, the game's dialogue comes off as rather shoddy. There's nothing terribly exciting or intriguing about what the people say, and the wording makes most exchanges sound extremely awkward. Using the fact that Didi is a child as an excuse for her shoddy discourse no longer really works as Telltale has proven that children can be written exceptionally well in The Walking Dead. In spite of that, there isn't enough dialogue either. By the game's end, it tells its story through all of the collectibles that are lying about, almost giving up on verbal exposition. If the player doesn't feel like getting them, they shouldn't feel like they're missing a primary part of the title's narrative, which is what happens here.
Granted, the visuals and soundtrack are absolutely worth seeing/hearing, making the three hours it took to finish the game worth it. However, the length does not play to the game's favour, as even at such a short run time, there are bits here and there that make the game feel padded. Sequences that last far longer than they should (like the previously mentioned Limbo-esque part) can put a strain on the attention span.
While the game looks pretty and sounds pretty, these alone are not enough to make a game enjoyable, and that is where Contrast hits another wall. Having so many problems with collision takes what could be a fun and unique concept, and spoils the experience. All the gameplay problems would have been tolerable, though, were it not for such an atrocious checkpoint system. The frequency of checkpoints is ridiculously varied, ranging from getting a checkpoint, climbing a flight of stairs, and getting another checkpoint, all the way to having to do an entire third of a level without a save.
A relatively short excursion into the lives of Didi and her imaginary friend is ruined by an astounding number of bugs. While Contrast is worth completing for the sake of seeing the gorgeous scenery and hearing the exceptional soundtrack, don't expect to have any real burning desire to play this game again over the coming months.