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Review of 'Contrast' - Andy Plays Indies; Andy reviews 'Contrast'
Topic Started: Jul 13 2018, 07:14 AM (170 Views)
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Link to video review: https://youtu.be/fi1FP4pdROo

Here's a fun fact. Did you know that Compulsion Games, the makers of hotly anticipated clown-punching simulator We Happy Few, have a previous credit to their name? Back in 2013, they made Contrast, a stylish little art nouveau puzzle platformer, which the world seems to have largely forgotten about. With We Happy Few just weeks away from its release date, this is all very fortuitous for me, as it gives me a flimsy pretense on which to review a five-year old game that not many people played.

In Contrast, we step into the impractical high heels and stripy tights of Dawn, a circus acrobat --apparently someone at Compulsion Games has a thing for clown makeup-- who also happens to be the imaginary friend of a little girl named Didi. Well, the game calls her an imaginary friend, but in actual fact she's more of an inter-dimensional fairy godmother. The game takes place in a fantasy version of 1920s Paris, which, for some reason, appears to floating in space. Didi gets caught up in the conflict between her struggling nightclub singer mom and two-bit hustler dad, and we're tasked with helping her try and sort out their problems.

The title is a reference to the game's chief platforming mechanic, which is the player character's ability to shift from her 3D body, into a two dimensional shadow version of herself. This drives the core gameplay, which is figuring out how to manipulate the environment so that shadows are where they need to be to allow you to access new areas. It's all basically functional, with enough variety to the set-pieces to keep your interest. It's nicely integrated into the storytelling, as well. You see, since Dawn has a specific connection with Didi, she only sees the shadows of other human characters, and some nice tricks are employed, where the shadows of characters in conversation are simultaneously used as elements in the platforming challenges. The puzzles aren't very difficult, and the game isn't very long, but it's about as long as it needs to be to tell the story, and the short runtime means the puzzles don't get boring.

Looking back from five years later, you'd have to say that some of Contrast's programming hasn't aged well. There aren't any game-breaking bugs, but the camera's a little unruly, and it can be a hard to tell what surfaces Dawn will or won't stand on. It also has that classic 3D platforming quirk, where characters sometimes wind up standing on thin air. And ironically, I found that if I didn't play the game in its built-in safe mode, the shadows themselves would sometimes bug. I would say that this is an example of why most developers do their first game in 2D, but the one really irritating part of Contrast is a prolonged 2D section towards the mid-point, where the game temporarily becomes a weaker version of Limbo, complete with a quite annoying giant spider chase sequence.

But despite some indie jankiness in the mechanicals, Contrast shines in its ambience. The streets of fantasy Paris are soaked in a lovely atmosphere of dingy sleaze, made all the more potent by the fact that we encounter it through the eyes of an innocent. That gets nicely contrasted with the more surreal elements that get introduced as game progresses. There's even a bit of creep factor, too when you stop and realize that some of the rooms must be jammed full of people, which you can neither see nor interact with.

Most critics refer to the atmosphere as noir, but I think the word I'd use is JazzPunk. While there are a couple of stereotypical film noir thugs in the game, Contrast lacks the stylized grit of a Big Sleep or a Casablanca. It feels more like an amalgam of Cabaret and Mirrormask, instead, with a romanticized view of the period glossed over a more human drama. This all brought to life by a sultry jazz soundtrack, which incidentally carries that greatest of game score accolades, which is that it's worth listening to by itself. There's a nice fairytale tone to the story, which to my mind, is only slightly cheapened by the introduction of some Bioshock style fuzzy science towards the end.

There's a strong character focus, too. In a game about a little girl protagonist caught between two parents, a lot of developers would have used the opportunity to spew their unresolved daddy issues all over the screen. But Didi's father is portrayed as a sincere guy, who's down on his luck but keeps trying to make good. At the same time, while the mother is also far from perfect, she too is sympathetic, and her conflicts with the father are perfectly understandable.

Dawn herself is a deliberately ambiguous character. She never speaks or emotes, yet her stance and movement convey an abundance of personality. I think the vagueness of her emotions is an intentional statement of her disconnection from the world of the other characters, and I really like the concept of a player character who exists in a kind of parasite dimension, running alongside, but not completely touching, the world in which the main story takes place. Without wishing to spoil, Dawn also gets a little character payoff of her own, right at the end of the story.

The only character who feels a little underwritten is Didi herself. I like that a point is made of her innocence, and that as a child she doesn't fully understand her parent's problems. The only downside is that, what with her not being the player character, it leaves her without much agency or character growth of her own.

Ultimately, Contrast is an example of how a lot of B+ elements can go together to make an A. The platforming and the puzzles aren't perfect, the dialogue is a little on the nose, and the story isn't the most original in the world. But all the elements in play are way above average, and when taken as a whole, this is a really excellent little game. You'll have to decide if a 4 hour story campaign is worth the $10 asking price to you, but at whatever price you decide, when the game is on sale at that figure, you should go out and get it.

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