If nothing else, Contrast is certainly an attention-grabbing game. With its neon-lit Parisian backdrop, twisted and broken world design, and emphasis on light and shadow, it’s a game that begs to be noticed for its boldness, creativity, and stark beauty. It begs so loudly and so openly that for a moment, one can almost forget that it is possessed of none of these qualities.
Contrast is about an odd, mute acrobat named Dawn who can turn into a shadow for some reason. Dawn’s best friend is a little girl, Didi, whose mother is a cabaret singer and whose father is never around. Dawn, apparently having nothing better to do, helps Didi sneak out every night to watch her mother perform. One night, Didi’s father comes in after the show with “another one of his get-rich-quick schemes,” although he’s “in with some bad men and needs help making good.” So Dawn and Didi single-handedly help him make good, and then he starts a circus, and then Dawn and Didi do all the maintenance for the show, and then it’s over because this game is mercifully short.
I’m trying my best not to be reductive here. Minus some tepid and predictable spoilers, that is literally the entirety of Contrast’s insipid, derivative plot. It’s written as ham-fistedly and melodramatically as humanly possible, and padded to a ridiculous degree, but that’s all there is to it. The game’s marketing promises a mystery, but there’s none to speak of. No burning questions to answer save for “why am I still playing this?”
The gameplay does not help matters. Dawn is capable of becoming her shadow when she’s next to a lit wall, which allows her to climb on other shadows, pass through glass, and generally reach places she wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach. In theory, this opens up untold possibilities in terms of exploration and puzzle design where perspective and level layouts can be turned on their heads. In practice, it amounts to slow, awkward side-scrolling segments where sometimes you can change the scale and position of some of the platforms.
Most of the time, you’re not even climbing around on shadows from real sources. The game makes use of a strange conceit where only Dawn and Didi’s character models are ever visible, while other characters are shown exclusively by their shadows on walls. Not only does this make the game environments feel empty and lifeless, it also amplifies a lot of the melodrama. The characters are often forced to make stiff, sweeping gestures as they speak so that they can work better as platforms.
To make matters worse, Contrast rarely even functions properly. Movement controls are loose and unwieldy in 2D and 3D alike, and shifting into shadows is frustratingly unreliable, especially when jumping. You’ll find yourself dying time and again because the game simply won’t let you shift onto the wall and land after a long jump. Sometimes the game just doesn’t work at all. In one late puzzle, I found myself entirely unable to progress because the game wouldn’t register where I was pointing a spotlight, and I had to restart.
The other thing that doesn’t work is the game’s aesthetic; a bland mash of Bioshock, LIMBO, and Psychonauts without a drop of genuine inspiration throughout. The whole neon-lit 1920s metropolis bit has been done to death, and tearing random chunks up and making them float doesn’t help much. It also doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense. The twisted, broken architecture is implied to be an alternate shadow world, but Didi sees and interacts with it, as well as people in the real world, so do the people just have to deal with bits of their city floating in the middle of nowhere all the time? It’s thoroughly confusing and distracting, generally signs of an inorganic and poorly-designed world.
The game is at its most blatantly derivative in copying LIMBO, though it has none of that title’s grace or good physics. For most of the game, it’s just the visual cue of moving silhouettes that evokes the classic indie side-scroller (as well as the idea of a little kid alone in a big, dangerous, adult world, but LIMBO doesn’t have a patent on that). However, in the second act there’s a segment with shadow puppets that copies LIMBO’s MO entirely, including a direct rip-off of the famous spider chase scene. I can understand that the developers were desperate to add a little variety to the mix, but this is straight-up shameful.
Then there’s the issue of the characters. The shadows representing the supporting cast are mostly blocky and generic, but that’s to be expected. The acting and writing are awful across the board, but again, that’s par for the course. More to the point, while Dawn and Didi’s models are nice to look at, neither of them are capable of showing any expression, and they move in an unbearably stiff and awkward fashion. The animation here is amateurish at best, and that’s when it’s not breaking entirely. It’s far too easy to get Dawn stuck in walls, and every single time you drop a crate, it will clip into her for several seconds and freeze her in a t-pose. This level of oversight is simply unacceptable for a commercially released title.
Contrast is a mess. It’s ugly, tiresome, insipid and occasionally insulting. It aspires to be like other, better games, and wears that on its sleeve, but has nothing worthwhile to call its own. The story it tells is stale and overwrought, and the gameplay itself is shallow and uninspired. It’s currently free on PS4 for PlayStation Plus users, but it’s still not worth your time. Let this one fade into the shadows.
Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4