What is it about shadows that fascinates us so much? Dark is merely the absence of light. We fear it because of what it hides, but what of the shadows? Those oblong silhouettes, the dark mirrors that speckle our world like glimpses into some unreachable dimension. It thrills the imagination. Ever since Peter Pan lost his companion, our fiction has tried to explore this other world within our own. It has ranged from the whimsical to the horrific. Now, thanks to the fine folks at Compulsion, we have a video game whose dream of shadows is downright jazzy.
All images were taken from the developer's website.
I remember when this game was in development. A lot of websites talked it up as the next great indie platformer, and it even got some great press at E3 a couple years ago. It looked great to me, and I got pretty excited for it. Yet when it was released, the gaming public seemed to forget all about it. There was little fanfare, barely even an acknowledgement beyond, "hey, this exists now." I was fairly perplexed, but onto my wishlist it went, and a little over a year later, I got to see if it was any good after all.
It's the roaring twenties. An age of jazz and cabaret, of noir and gangsters, of light and shadows. Living in this world is a little girl named Didi. Life hasn't been kind to Didi: her father ran off, her mother is barely making ends meet as a lounge singer with no time or for her, and her only companion is her "imaginary friend," a mysterious shadow girl named Dawn. That's you, by the way. The player controls Dawn, a leggy young woman in a garish costume with the ability to turn herself into a shadow on the wall. Only Didi can see her; to everyone else, Dawn is merely an imaginary friend. Being mute isn't exactly shedding any light on her character, either.
That doesn't matter. The story belongs to Didi. One night her estranged father, Johnny, rolls back into town with a fancy new suit and a scheme to provide for them. Didi's mother isn't buying it, and neither are the loan sharks riding Johnny's ass. Not wanting to see her family torn apart again, Didi takes it upon herself to help Johnny from behind scenes, enlisting Dawn's help with some of the heavy lifting. The story and conflict belong to them. You're just along for the ride. Didi is the Penny to Johnny's Inspector Gadget, and you're playing as Brain.
The sweetness of the conflict with the noir atmosphere are fitting blend of light and dark. The soulfull score and aesthetics certainly don't hurt. The design of the characters and environment have an almost mildly Burton-esque flair to them. As small as it is, the setting oozes personality. Things in the environment have a dreamy quality to them as well. You can be exploring an otherwise realistic locale then turn a corner and have to jump across a floating piano. The edge of the world drops off into an infinite void like Silent Hill. Little of the fantasy is explained, and it blurs the line between truth and imagination.
Almost nothing is revealed about Dawn and her powers. I've seen other complain about this, wanting more solid explanations about the character and the way the world works. I disagree. Contrast has enough substance that it doesn't need to explain. The story of Didi's family is charming without a bunch of mumbo-jumbo about shadow realms to distract from it. The abstract nature of the environment gives the whole game and air of awe. I think that explaining these things outright would take away more than it would add. It gives the player a sense of wonderment.
The gameplay is puzzle-platforming. There's a decent mix but it definitely skews toward the intellectual side. The way the game unfolds reminds me a lot of Portal. There is plenty of action by way of running and jumping, but the meat of the experience comes from figuring out how to progress. Dawn's main power is to turn into a shadow on the wall and use other shadows as platforms to get around. You have to go back and forth between 2D and 3D to get around.
In this regard, there really isn't aren't many creative uses to the gimmick as you would think. Mostly you're just trying to get yourself or an opject from point A to point B. The most common use of Dawn's ability is to move around a light source in 3D to get your shadow-platforms lined up properly so that you can reach a distant ledge or something. There aren't really any mind-blowing ways in which the shadow realm and real world interact with each other. On top of that, the game is pretty small and linear, so there isn't much in the way of exploration, either.
That doesn't mean it isn't enjoyable. Jumping is still fun, figuring out a solution is still satisfying. The novelty of shifting between dimensions takes a long time to wear off, even if there isn't much to it. For a game with such a cool concept, it doesn't feel like you're doing much more than you could do in most other action-puzzlers. There's still a lot to enjoy, though.
The game's biggest detriment comes from some technical flaws. One in particular sticks out like a sore thumb. Whenever Dawn is in shadow and there is a conflict of solid object (like if she dashes into a wall or gets pinched between moving platforms) she gets ejected back into the 3D space. The game is far from picky about doing this. It's very common to be hopping through a 2D section only to be abruptly popped out because you jumped a hair too far or landed at the wrong angle, or for no discernible reason at all.
This is compounded by the fact that Dawn moves way too fast. She zips around like Sonic and leaps like Superman, making it hard to land short-range jumps with precision. When hopping from place to place, you frequently leap right off the boundary of the shadow, spoiling your progress and forcing you to start the whole platform segment over again. It can turn otherwise straightforward platforming into an unwarranted challenge, and long segments can be outright rage inducing. These long segments are few and far between, but even shorter ones can be a pain because of it. The issue never resolves itself, and will bother players throughout the whole game. If anybody on the dev team is reading this, please accept my apology. I like your product but cursed you out under my breath during the carousel part.
Contrast is a nice puzzle-platform game with a great story and atmosphere. The gameplay doesn't break any molds and is bogged down by some frustrating technical issues, but it's still fun nonetheless. The average playthrough is about four hours, with repeat ventures clocking in at less than half that time. The Steam list price of $15 dollars is pretty steep for such a short game, even if it is ultimately good. I got it on on sale for just south of four bucks and was pretty satisfied. If like puzzle-platform games, give this one a shot when the price drops.