There aren't many games out there that deal with children and their struggle to cope with situations that we take for granted every day. While there are some stories out there like Papo & Yo, the market isn't exactly filled with them, leaving a rather sizable gap for others to take their place.
Here to answer the call on the launch of the PlayStation 4 comes Contrast, the adventure of a young girl named Didi and her imaginary shadow friend Dawn. Contrast isn't a system-seller by any means, but it's a great little distraction for a rainy afternoon.
Contrast (PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 [reviewed], Xbox 360)
Developer: Compulsion Games
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release Date: November 14, 2013
MSRP: $14.99 (Free on PlayStation Plus)
Dawn and Didi start out their adventure in a city painted with a distinct 1920s veneer, opening with Didi sneaking out of her room, and into a nightclub. You'll immediately get wrapped up in a lover's spat between her parents, and the premise pretty much takes off from there -- melding real life issues and the presence of a magical shadow realm that Dawn frequently partakes in. Despite the supernatural presentation, Contrast, at its essence, is the story of Didi and her separated parents, as she attempts to find out what happened and repair (or make sense of) the broken pieces.
Contrast does a good job of making Didi likable (much like The Walking Dead's Clementine), as you play through the story charged as her guardian. The noir theme and jazz soundtrack also both help pull you into Contrast's world in a big way, and the team really did a good job capturing the essence of the '20s but with enough of their own style injected into the setting. Something should also be said about the solid writing, which deals with a monumental family situation that many of us have painfully experienced with grace.
But that same care that's taken with Didi and the world around her doesn't really translate to gameplay. Simply put, Contrast is a puzzle platformer through and through, as you control Dawn melding in and out of the shadows of the city. While Contrast is of the 3D variety out in the open, when Dawn enters the shadows, it morphs into a 2D style -- opting for a slightly different feel. So if you move an object in the world of light, it may cast a shadow, allowing Dawn to gain some ground in the dark realm.
While these concepts feel novel at first within the confines of the game, over the course of the story they start to get stale -- even when Dawn earns new tricks, like the ability to dash. The shadow mechanic is also extremely limited, as you can only enter the darkness at certain "shiny" points, which makes the once intriguing concept feel a bit more cheap and contrived. The other problem is both of these mechanics have one thing holding it back -- shaky, imprecise controls on both ends of the spectrum.
Dawn's jumping is not fluid in both the 2D and 3D portions, and the engine just feels off. Bugs and glitches plague platforming sections, as I've gotten stuck in a wall or "fallen off" a solid object more times than I can count. Contrast isn't exactly bursting from the seams with things to do throughout the brief campaign outside of a scant few collectibles, so don't expect much beyond the endearing narrative.
There really isn't a whole lot to Contrast throughout its roughly three hour tale. It's a perfect game to pick up on PlayStation Plus for free, but if you're a non-subscriber or you're musing on another platform, I'd wait for a sale. It does a nice job of weaving a sweet little tale of a young girl and her struggle to maintain her innocence in a (literal and figurative) dark and dreary world, but it's nothing special, and nothing you haven't really seen before.