Art, music and final thoughts
The world of "Contrast" is small but highly stylized, drawing on a number of historical periods and trends. Perhaps the most recognizable of these is American film noir of the 1940s; the game's levels, or "Acts," even take their names from period films like "Casablanca" and "The Maltese Falcon." Many of the shadows sport fedoras, Johnny's investors speak like old-time gangsters, and when Kat and Johnny kiss their silhouettes, it looks like it's straight out of a 1940s movie poster.
The city itself is a romanticized "Belle Epoque"Paris with the film noir feel superimposed over it: Winding cobblestone streets end in dark alleys; high-ceilinged theaters are adorned with neon signs, and an enormous moon hangs over everything. Add a dash of "Moulin Rouge" vaudeville in the clothing and a gearpunk feel in the circus's fantastical rides, and the result is a visually rich environment that looks both familiar and new.
But this tableau is just the background for the game's most interesting visual decisions. The word "contrast" refers to a qualitative difference between two entities that distinguishes them from each other. Just as the narrative plays with the contrast between complicated reality and Didi's idealized perspective, the visuals reinforce this theme by turning it on its head: Where Didi sees people with faces, expressions and glamorous period clothing, the player (through Dawn) sees only absence. In this way, the characters' appearance as shadows does more than echo the gameplay; it reminds the player that Dawn's vision is just as distorted as Didi's is.
In their visual absence, these characters are richer than the game's graphical limitations could ever render them. Yet the character with the most detailed digital model is the one with the least personality: Dawn herself, the player avatar and Didi's invisible friend. With her tall, slender physique, dramatic makeup and vaudevillian clothing, Dawn looks like a character from Tim Burton's films "Corpse Bride" or "The Nightmare Before Christmas."
But there's an echo of Didi's mother, Kat, in Dawn's appearance as well, reinforced by environmental clues like a stray black-and-white photograph of Kat or a poster advertising her performance at the Ghost Note. However, while just the shadow of Kat radiates sexuality, Dawn — despite her tights, corset and detailed makeup — lacks any sexual presentation whatsoever. This echoes the idea that Dawn is a product of Didi's mind. Just as Dawn can move through the physical world and the two-dimensional world of shadows, she also represents a bridge between Didi's innocent imagination and the shadowy, morally compromised world her parents occupy.
Between its film noir aesthetic and its shadow-based gameplay, lighting is critical to every aspect of "Contrast." The environments are dark except for pools of yellow light, creating yet another contrast that the player must navigate.
The result is visually striking and makes for a beautiful viewing experience, but it often disrupts the game itself — it's hard to accomplish a task when you can hardly see anything on the screen. A game's visuals can't come at the expense of its playability, and the darkness in certain parts of "Contrast" presented a frustrating and headache-inducing challenge. Implementing a brightness control within the game would have made the game more playable without sacrificing its moody lighting.
Without faces or bodies, characters' voices are the most important way players can connect to them, and the voice actors of "Contrast" are up to the challenge. All of them deliver, particularly for the central players Didi, Kat and Johnny. As a cabaret singer, Kat also performs a brief musical number at the beginning of the game that helps establish the "Moulin Rouge" meets "To Have and Have Not" ambiance.
Like the art style, the music of "Contrast" has period roots. The songs are all jazzy swing numbers with lots of saxophone and trumpet, and sound like they're coming from the nearby buildings.
When playing "Contrast," you need a bright light to make a strong shadow. It's the same with the game itself; in the increasingly competitive field of indie games, you need to shine brightly to make an impression. "Contrast" is capable of that light, but the game's glitches and lack of polish dim its potential. Hopefully a patch will address these issues.
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: Compulsion Games
Genre: Action-adventure, puzzle
Price: $14.99 (free on PlayStation with PlayStation Plus membership)
Release Date: Nov. 15, 2013
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC (Steam)