Any game that emits an aura equal to that of American McGee’s Alice franchise immediately lands on my radar, regardless of how it actually plays. The dark and morbid sides of reality have an overall sensation that I simply cannot ignore. Aesthetically, Contrast looks exactly like it would be a level from McGee’s twisted Wonderland, and the corruption and failings of the Roaring Twenties is a clever addition to what Focus Home Interactive intended to create. Indeed, the story is worth the time of every gamer–an easy task, thanks to its current placement on the PS Plus Instant Game Collection. Following its narrative comes at a cost, however, when the gameplay that stands between plot points frustrates and condescends.
The story opens with a little girl named Didi talking to and interacting with the literal shadow of her mother. You take on the role of Dawn, Didi’s imaginary friend, and you’re destined to help Didi fix the bad choices that her father has made in his life. In hindsight, this story would have been better told as an interactive film, since the story’s immersion is often lost after the mindless puzzles and frustrating controls. What should be a simple platformer is instead a new concept that’s caught in the middle of two polarized gameplay styles.
The final moments of the narrative have a few interesting hooks with the final moment revealing something that’s significant and worth everyone’s interpretation. I’m glad I played to completion, again in hindsight, because the ending justified the means, but Contrast’s gameplay had me wanting to outright delete it at times. Most of Contrast’s puzzles–use shadows to reach an object or fit environmental pieces together–are really quite simple and made time-consumingly difficult only for somewhat-poor communication of what you’re trying to accomplish and level design that will be blatantly obvious to some and hopelessly vague to others. I felt robbed for putting as much time into puzzles as I did. Playing with shadows to navigate levels feels great, but actually navigating them becomes unadulterated work.
The game’s shadow aspect, which sees you morphing into your shadow on walls to use other shadows as platforming devices, is compelling, but the three-dimensional gameplay of Contrast… contrasts. If the entire game had been delivered with shadow-based platforming, the excitement would be more sustained; surely, the game would end up becoming more of an interactive movie, but as aforementioned, the story is Contrast’s most attractive element. I’m not sure if the metaphorical contrast in gameplay between 2D and 3D is supposed to literally show that the imagination is more fun than reality, but that last bit holds true for the game at large. Thinking about Contrast, its characters, and its themes is generally more fun than playing it.
The three acts of Contrast take about three or four hours to finish, but it all feels longer than it should be, thanks to gameplay that’s all over the place in terms of enjoyment. Seeing more games from this studio would be great, especially if its future stories will continue to dabble in subject matter not commonly found in this industry. But frustrating gameplay aside, there are a whole lot of glitches to be found in Contrast–most commonly, falling through the ground or getting stuck between objects. Far from a terrible game but nowhere near perfection, Contrast is a low point in the PS4 launch line-up. But there’s nowhere to go but up.