Contrast is a noir platform/puzzler set in 1920’s Paris. The game focuses around Didi, a young girl and her friend that no one else is able to see by the name of Dawn, a mysterious woman with the ability to interact with shadows by “shifting” into walls. This makes out for an interesting game mechanic, and plays a heavy role in some of the games many environmental puzzles.
The first thing you really notice upon starting Contrast is how dark the game is. This relates heavily to the various light based puzzles within the environment you are tasked with solving to progress further through the game. The key mechanic used throughout the game being Dawn’s ability to interact with shadows, shifting into walls and running along them to reach other areas, flipping from 3D exploration to 2D platformer in the process. The dark environments allow this to happen by allowing light sources to create shadows that Dawn can then interact with, but they also mix with the games art style to give an added atmospheric, moody edge to the game.
The story begins with Didi, accompanied by you playing as Dawn, as she sneaks out of her bedroom to go and watch her mother sing at a Cabaret bar called the Ghost Note. Ignoring the obvious child protection issues (the 1920’s were clearly a different time), this initial section serves as what is basically a tutorial, introducing you to the basic controls and shadow puzzles, phasing into the wall to run across a gap to a fire escape and then pushing a cart to allow Didi to follow. The game doesn’t have a level structure as such, instead you move from section to section, all within a larger environment that you are able to explore, such as the streets and a nightclub in the earlier stages, but later a circus and a lighthouse, where some of the trickier puzzles take place.
After this initial section the story shifts up a gear, and we are introduced to Didi’s father and the rocky relationship that he has with her mother. For fear of entering into spoiler territory I will refrain from saying any more about the main plot of the game, but personally I felt that the story was playing second fiddle to the gameplay and puzzles, and at times I was happy to skip some of the cutscenes having already guessed what was going to happen next anyway.
The puzzles within the game all make use of Dawn’s ability to shift between the 3D environment and the 2D shadow world. Some of these puzzles are simple, but a few are fiendishly clever and require a bit of thinking to solve, moving objects such as crates and changing the direction of spotlights to manipulate the lay of the shadows within the game world for Dawn to then run along and access areas that would be otherwise out of reach. This is a clever little twist on the environmental puzzle game, and you quickly start thinking of each section in terms of where the lights are and how they impact on the shadows in the immediate vicinity, as Dawn is able to instantly pop into and then back out of a wall with the press of a button. Later the ability to shift into the wall while carrying objects is introduced and this does just manage to refresh the mechanic enough towards the end of the game.
Dawn, who remains silent throughout, is by far the most interesting character. Whether this was because she is the character whom you take control of or simply because she is the one with the unusual ability I can’t decide, but I was pretty sure early on the direction Didi’s story was taking and therefore more interested in Dawn and the role she played in the game. Who is she? How does she relate to Didi? How did she get this power? The game does a good job of making you ask these questions without ramming them down your throat, the answers coming as you progress through the games main storyline with the collectables that are hidden throughout each section serving to further flesh out the story.
Having so many questions subtly planted about Dawn’s origins early in the game it is a shame I felt little to no attachment to Didi throughout my playthrough, as it does feel like an opportunity missed on the behalf of the developers. To compare this game to others where you play an adult escorting another character around a game world such as Bioshock or The Last of Us there felt like there was no real threat to Didi besides the twists and turns of the story, and her plot thread I thought was fairly predictable.
Didi is essentially the lead character telling you the player where to go and what to do next, often at times without giving you chance to work it out for yourself. Had there been a threat, or something that you as the player needed to protect Didi from, it would have added an extra dimension to the game, giving it a bit of emotional kick in the fear that would come from knowing your actions were going to hinder or endanger a character who needed your protection. Instead, you are relegated to the role of virtual chauffeur whose job it is to escort her from Point A to Point B, and luckily the gameplay is just that bit different enough to pull this off until the end credits roll.
Overall I did enjoy my time playing Contrast. The game itself is fun, if a little gloomy and melodramatic at times, but some of the environments are cleverly designed and fun to explore using the shadow mechanic, with the collectables offering that further detail to both Dawn and Didi’s story, helping to add that ever important replay value to this arcade title.
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