Two-dimensional, in more ways than one.
Getting a downloadable title into the headlines can be tough, but fortune comes in many guises.For developer Compulsion Games it was the delay to the much anticipated DriveClub that made sure their innovative puzzle platformer Contrast was to gain more than passing attention from gamers during the PS4’s launch.
With Evolution Studios’ racing title needing a little longer to add the layers of polish it would require to stand as any kind of comparable alternative to the Xbox One’s Forza franchise, the slot for Resogun’s “plus one” was open.
A title was needed to offer to PlayStation Plus subscribers, and that’s probably how most will come to Contrast. It’s a slightly tough sell, an artsy narrative-driven platformer isn’t likely to be anyone’s first game on their new console, but it is at least interesting.
Set in 1920s Paris, the slow bar room piano-fused soundtrack and art deco themes lend it an air of Bioshock Infinite; a comparison compounded by the otherworldly nature of the level design and the distinctly Elizabeth-like little girl you come to chaperone.
You control Dawn, the imaginary friend of the aforementioned young girl, Didi. There are no other characters seen, they only appear in silhouette form, but the story that’s told by them is very real.
It’s a family drama of parental abandonment mixed with the cliched noir staples of gangsters, nightclub singers and grifters.
A shadow of yourselfThe interesting hook is your ability to “shift in” to shadows. Dawn can stand next to a flat object and become a shadow herself, and in this state utilise other shadows as platforms; it creates a distinct Limbo look. The game uses this novelty of 3D-to-2D and weaves the story around it, with the silhouettes of the characters in certain cut-scenes becoming platforms themselves, their huge outlines projected onto the sides of buildings, proving vital to reach new areas or objects. It’s an intelligent way to link narrative and gameplay together in an attempt to avoid the player being passive while the story unfolds, and broadly speaking it works.
Nothing’s satisfying enough to offer that “I did it!” moment
Just about everything in Contrast is a fusing of different ideas, as you explore the three dimensional city, following Didi, you find rooms that require light sources to be placed correctly - the puzzle element comes into play here. Once everything’s aligned you’ll shift in and begin the 2D platformer phase, before finally shifting back out to explore a new area and push the story onwards. When it works, it feels dynamic.
The problem - and it’s the big “but” that makes itself known fairly quickly - is that in order to accommodate all the disparate elements, no single one has been polished to the requisite sheen. This’d be a greater issue if the game were taxing, but it’s not, it’s a story designed to be told to conclusion, almost ensuring completion by a relatively low difficulty. Nothing’s satisfying enough to offer that “I did it!” moment that great platformers rely upon at the completion of a stage. Your stock reaction will likely be based on how interesting you find the idea behind the section’s concept was. All too often the departure into the 2D view is brief, but there’s a fairtytale stage that proves that, if you were allowed to tarry a little longer, the result may have been different.
The control scheme is basic, and when a new ability - dashing out of shadows to get through thin lines - occurs you might assume it’ll require a hint of dexterity to shift back in. No, it does so automatically. If you fail to make a jump in Contrast it’s probably because you’re over-thinking things and aiming for perfection, intending to land at the edge of a precipice rather than accepting that the game is designed around hitting the centre of each object with relative ease.
Sadly there’s not the warmth and charm to Dawn as there is in other accessible platformers, like the spongy ambling of Sackboy in LittleBigPlanet. She leaps like a marionette and her static form indicates why the need to steer away from total precision was necessary, I’m not sure the physics (or clipping) could handle it; once you start interacting with objects there are some strange effects - I got trapped in a box I was holding!
But that’s not game breaking, many titles have inflicted far worse. No, if Contrast has one fatal flaw it’s just that it’s a bit, well, boring. It’s a sombre, stark game, the periods of silence are almost deafening. The kitchen sink drama unfolding is all too predictable, and the cliche of the grifter and his nightclub singer dame employs all the right lines and some good voice acting, but it’s just not particularly interesting. It’s a collection of caricatures who hint at emotional depth, but ultimately are as flat as the shadows they cast. When the gameplay lacks complexity, the story needs it, front and centre.
Luckily, the city partially makes up for this. It doesn’t offer a great amount of exploration as it’s cut up into sections, but the strange effect of a world seemingly disintegrating into space lends an air of mystery. Is this real? What happened? Do I have to go back to following that whiny kid? These are the questions that’ll propel you far more towards the conclusion than a down-on-his-luck chancer pining for the wife and child he abandoned.
The story-related collectibles, such as scraps of paper, flesh out the yarn and give a far better, and more nuanced, insight into what’s really going on. Like Bioshock’s audio logs, they add just the right amount of detail whilst allowing the players to fill in the gaps. It’s only a pity that most can be found without really delving too deep, but then again expecting the world of a downloadable title to be vast enough to house more, and hide them more deviously, would be unreasonable.
What isn’t unreasonable is asking for the ability to explore without triggering the next cut-scene. You can at least tackle certain tasks in your own order, but when the city’s the most interesting element, you should be able to turn in the opposite direction of the person leading you without fearing you’ll accidentally push the story on unwittingly by stumbling upon your guide’s final destination. When doors can shut behind you, this can be a bit annoying.
- Attempts to tell a story differently
- Visually striking
- Can be atmospheric
- Simple puzzles
- Lax platforming
- One note story
Contrast PS4 ReviewContrast hitches its wagon to the twin horses of aesthetic and narrative. Each intriguing element - like segueing from 3D exploration to 2D platforming, or shifting light sources to create paths - plays out like a proof of concept rather than the finished article which is fulfilling in its own right.
It’s a game chock full of ideas, polished in narrative niceties like scripting and voice acting, but unfortunately lacking the same attention to detail with the core gameplay. If you can find satisfaction in atmosphere and fusing gameplay elements in an innovative manner then you should be able to overlook these deficiencies though, and enjoy a simple yet abstract little oddity.
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