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Contrast review

Shadow play

Contrast is proof that a great idea isn’t always enough.

At first blush, it might seem like Compulsion Games’ debut would fit naturally into the tradition of indie puzzle-platformers like Braid, Thomas Was Alone, and Fez, titles focused on a single quirky gameplay concept in an effort to bring something to the genre that was at once both familiar and new. To be reductionist: gimmick games.

Contrast, for its part, has one hell of a gimmick. You play as Dawn, a mysterious, possibly imaginary young woman with the ability to transition between the corporeal world and shadows. From a gameplay standpoint, that means Contrast is simultaneously both a 3D and a 2D platformer, with 2D environments dynamically created by the lighting effects in the 3D world. By switching between both planes—a simple button press when standing next to a wall—Dawn can navigate otherwise impassable obstacles by using silhouettes as platforms, passing through glass, and generally upending expectations of movement. It’s a fantastic, truly imaginative concept with a lot of potential for interesting gameplay scenarios.

Trouble is, Contrast has a hard time delivering on that promise. If you look at those other gimmick games I mentioned, if you really scrutinize them, it quickly becomes apparent that their gimmicks are the least impressive thing about them. Their real triumph is the way they can build around that concept in a natural and interesting way, employing the tenets of strong level design and clever puzzle-building to expand that concept and tease out its possibilities over the course of the game. Here, Contrast stumbles.

While Contrast includes a handful of interesting puzzles, it offers precious few eureka moments, those times when you stare at an seemingly indecipherable puzzle for minutes, only to discover the brilliantly simple solution that was right in front of you all along. Instead, the solution is either painfully obvious, woefully obfuscated, or—in the worst of cases—both. In one puzzle, I assumed the item I needed would be out of sight on a platform above me, but after trying and failing to make the jump a dozen times in a row, onlookers convinced me that the answer must have been elsewhere. After poring over every inch of the room, I finally went back to that same jump, made it, and found the item I needed. While it was by far the worst, it wasn’t the only instance my progress slowed to a crawl, wrecking the pacing and taking all the fun out of the experience.

The technical implementation of the concept also leaves something to be desired. While it’s admirable that the gimmick works as intended a majority of the time, things go wrong often enough that’s it’s difficult to ignore. The occasional glitch is all well and good, but when I find myself stuck in geometry—both 3D objects and shadows—more than a dozen times over the course of a three-hour game, that’s just inexcusable. To Contrast‘s credit, I was always able to escape these situations by mashing the air-dash button or phasing in and out of a wall, but I never should’ve been in that scenario to begin with.

It’s a shame, because the non-gameplay portions of Contrast find much greater success. The visual atmosphere and setting is fantastic, a sort of otherworldly Jazz Age Paris that calls to mind the exaggerated backdrops of The Triplets of Belleville. The soundtrack is phenomenal, aided by sultry performances from chanteuse Laura Ellis. The story might be a bit muddled, but it’s nice, simple, and its heart is in the right place. In the end, though, none of those things are enough to buoy the subpar gameplay.

So, yes, Contrast has a great idea at its core—and a handful of ancillary successes to support it—but a great idea is only ever a jumping-off point, not a destination. Compulsion should have spent more time playtesting, revising, and reconsidering what they built to fully bring out its underlying potential. As it stands, Contrast feels more prototype than finished game, a faint shadow of what it might have been.

★☆☆☆☆

Contrast offers one of the most interesting gameplay gimmicks in recent memory, but the lack of engaging puzzles and interesting levels prevent the concept from being put to good use.

Developer
Compulsion Games
Publisher
Compulsion Games
ESRB
T – Teen
Release Date
11.15.2013
Contrast is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Compulsion Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.

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