Gameplay and story
A little girl's imaginary friend helps to solve the problems of her dysfunctional family in "Contrast," an atmospheric indie game and launch title for the PlayStation 4.
"Contrast" is a third-person action-adventure puzzle game, with a twist: Players can become a shadow on a wall, weaving between a three-dimensional world of gaslit vaudeville and the two-dimensional world of shadows to solve puzzles.
"Contrast," played for this review on a PlayStation 4, has a lot of interesting ideas, but the game suffers from glitches and hang-ups that come close to ruining its carefully crafted atmosphere. There's a great game here, but it's often (literally) hard to see.
The game's controls appear simple: move, jump and dash. However, the protagonist, Dawn, has another ability: She can stand next to a brightly lit wall and become a shadow on the wall. On this two-dimensional surface, you can walk and jump across other shadows in order to seek out new paths Didi — a nonplayable character — can't take.
Because she's a nonplayable character, Didi's movements can't be controlled, but she never gets in the way and doesn't need to be protected, so her presence in the game is almost exclusively through the narrative. At certain points, however, she will help you in various tasks by turning on lights so that you can become a shadow, or holding up other objects to create shadow projections that you can walk on.
Many of the game's puzzles involve aligning objects in front of a light source so that their shadows form traversable platforms and bridges, and then "merging" into the wall and hopping across these shadows to reach your goal. It's like switching back and forth between a two-dimensional platformer and a three-dimensional action-adventure game.
In one notable section of the game, you're tasked with performing in a shadow puppet show, and the three-dimensional action-adventure game recedes entirely. This section of the game is reminiscent of the 2010 indie game "Limbo" in both its chiaroscuro aesthetic and violent platform-style gameplay. Threats appear without warning, meaning you'll die repeatedly before figuring out how to advance.
There are a few optional puzzles that will take players a few steps off the beaten path, but by and large, the game is highly linear: Didi tells you what she needs you to do, and you do it. Thanks to a well-crafted story and beautifully designed environment, however, the game's linearity is rarely frustrating.
Unfortunately, just about everything else is. To start with, the player character's unusual shape — tall, thin and long-legged — means her gawky movements and long strides take some getting used to.
Adjusting to the game's unique feel wouldn't really be a problem, though, if the game weren't so glitchy. Dawn frequently gets caught on ledges or uneven surfaces, or, as a shadow, will suddenly spring out of the wall. The frequency of these little errors makes "Contrast" feel unpolished and unnecessarily frustrating. If "Contrast" had more time in beta to address these issues, it would be a much better game.
You play as Dawn, the imaginary friend of a young girl named Didi. Didi's mother, Kat, is a cabaret singer at a bar called Ghost Note, and her estranged father Johnny is, as they say, "in deep with the wrong people." As Dawn, you help Didi sneak out of the house and follow her mother to the Ghost Note. Didi is thrilled to see her father, Johnny, there as well; he has returned with a plan to put together a circus in order to win Kat back and prove he can support his family.
These scenes are excellent at emphasizing the contrast between the reality of Johnny and Kat's situation and the idealized version that Didi sees. The sexual nature of Kat's performance flies entirely over Didi's head, for example, and later, when Kat rejects Johnny's advances — it's implied that the circus is just the latest in a long string of failed plans — Didi gets angry at her mother for being "so mean."
This contrast between Didi's and the player's perspectives is reinforced in the game's visual design. As Dawn, no one but Didi can see you, and you can see no one but Didi — only the shadows of other characters appear, their silhouettes sharp in the flickering gaslight. This makes for extremely striking scenes, such as seeing Didi put her arms around thin air as, on the wall behind her, her father's shadow pats her shadow on its head. Didi can see the other characters, but she doesn't understand them. The player probably understands the characters better, but can't see them.