With one or two great ideas notwithstanding, Contrast is a boring, muddled mess.
Somewhere, buried deep, deep in the heart of Contrast, is a spark. The spark of a fantastic idea, one that could, with the right fuel, conditions, and maybe just a little luck, ignite into a tremendous fire. However, like a metaphor that begins to spiral out of control, Contrast smothers that spark with enough wet tinder so that all that remains is just that, a spark.
In Contrast, players take the role of Dawn, an imaginary-friend-meets-guardian-angel who can shift in between the physical world and the shadows on walls, protecting a small child named Didi. Didi is a precocious child, and her mother, a cabaret singer named Kat, does not quite know what to do with her daughter. A fairly contrived meeting draws in Didi’s father, and Kat’s estranged husband Johnny, a ne’er-do-well “bad boy” (voiced by Elias Toufexis, of Deus Ex: Human Revolution fame, oddly enough) who has fallen in with the… wrong-er crowd who now lord Johnny’s debts over Kat and Didi.
So it’s up to Johnny, aided by Dawn and Didi, to recoup Johnny’s debts by putting on the world’s best circus. Yes. You read that correctly.
Before I get too negative, I do at least want to say that Contrast is an audio-visual tour-de-force. Perhaps you can chalk this up to playing to the interests of the reviewer here, but everything about the “1920’s film noir dreamscape” setting created by the team at Compulsion is immensely appealing. The entire locale just breathes out an enjoyably surreal atmosphere, and the half laid back lounge, half big band swing soundtrack never failed to play up the strengths of the world design.
However, the outstandingly strong atmosphere simply does not support the rest of the game’s poor puzzle design. Dawn’s ability to shift in between the physical, three dimensional world of Didi and the shadows cast on the wall of the rest of the principle cast is used to either take the long way around places that Dawn cannot fit through, ferry large objects such as crates and balls across large gaps, or both. There really just is not much more to the gameplay than that. And while I normally would not raise that type of complaint, the shifting just becomes so imprecise some times that simple traversal puzzles take exponentially longer trying to fiddle with lights and objects to get to just the right place so Dawn can slip and catapult across them. The result is that puzzles never feel like you solved them the “right” way. There are not moments of epiphany like solving puzzles in a game like Braid or Brothers, only moments of “Well… I guess that worked? Let’s just keep going and try not to fall down and do all of that over again.”
In addition, there is a lot about the game’s writing that seems either rushed or out of place. Early collectibles strewn throughout the levels attempt to add in certain amounts of flavor and interesting potential questions that the ending would have presumably answered. Instead, the game drops all pretenses of subtlety towards the ending. Certain facts are painstakingly spelled out in specific collectibles, yet others are not even granted a primary glance. Other information comes up that is wholly unnecessary, just making the final thirty minutes a combination of disappointment and confusion, summed up by the actual ending, which brings the concept of “A Wizard Did It” to astronomically anti-climactic new heights.
Although this is not to say the rest of the game’s non-collectible implied plot is not any less disappointing. There is absolutely no grit in this noir, no punch behind any event. The two somewhat bumbling mobsters seeking to collect their debt from Johnny make threats, but the worst they ever do is break Johnny’s finger. I kept waiting for some form of major shift in the story, but none ever arrives. You are introduced to the characters, help fix up Johnny’s circus, and then ensure the main event of the circus actually occurs, after being interrupted. Those are the actual, game-decreed, three acts of the story.
All in all, Contrast is a game of wasted potential, and really proves that you cannot judge a book by its cover. An outstanding visual style simply cannot support the game’s banal plotting and boringly constructed puzzles. What is even more unfortunate is that at its heart, there are some absolutely fantastic ideas at work. A game based around manipulating the lighting of film noir inspired scenes sounds amazing. However, Contrast is just too imprecise, seems to believe that it is more intelligent than it actually is, and, perhaps most damningly of all, is just written too safely to capitalize on any of its amazing concepts or atmosphere.