Contrast review: black and white

Contrast is a frequently beautiful mess

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3, Win, PS4
Publisher Compulsion Games
Developer Compulsion Games
Release Date

Contrast has the trappings of an indie darling.

In developer Compulsion Games' first project, a slinky lady acrobat morphs into a shadow figure and climbs the walls of a 1930s European city. Equal parts strange and evocative, its style may have guaranteed Contrast a certain cult status in any year before this one.

But in 2013 — a year in which fresh and novel indie games have appeared with the regularity and often price of a Sunday paper — strange and evocative isn't enough. And the stylish exterior conceals an underpolished, buggy and unexpectedly brief adventure.

Contrast is a collection of spatial puzzles, many of which involve moving blocks from one place to another, all of which are threaded together by a fascinating, albeit undercooked domestic drama. You play the role of Dawn, the impossibly slim twenty-something acrobat-slash-invisible friend of Didi, the aforementioned only-child of a broken family.

Dawn and Didi are the only "humans" in Contrast's dream-like pseudo world. The remaining character, namely Didi's mother, father and a mysterious magician, appear as silhouettes on the city's best-lit walls.

The story Contrast tells is so simple and predictable that to explain the setup might spoil the whole thing. I will say the male characters are both human and flawed, a rarity in a video games; One mid-act detour explored a man’s feeling of inadequacy in the face of more talented, intelligent, brave women. There's proof throughout the adventure, albeit in small doses, that the game intends to say something. But Contrast never quite makes clear what it wants to say or how it wants to say it.

Contrast also fails as a game at a basic level.

The central gameplay gimmick itself is nifty: You move objects in your corporeal form to adjust the size of their shadows, then switch into a silhouette and use said shadows as platform. Contrast has you using the embiggened shadow characters to navigate its spaces, like climbing over the heads of mom and pop as they swap spit. But that blend of story and play is a high point that it frantically struggles and often fails to sustain.

Contrast fails because the climbing — Dawn's main means of traversal — feels so lousy and purposeless. The reward is always another glowing orb or another box to help solve puzzles. This isn't nearly reward enough for putting up with the platforming itself. For an acrobat, Dawn is stiff, flimsy and unreliable. My best efforts and plenty of patience weren't enough to stop her from hopping into the game's many uncontextualized bottomless pits.

The biggest puzzle is Contrast itself — and Compulsion seems content to leave it unsolved. The shadow world, the "real" world, the half-built floating structures, the invisible friend, the themes of magic and science — all go unexplained. That vagueness could be charming if Contrast wasn't so obviously unfinished.

At three hours — that's finding almost every collectible — the game feels incomplete, and ends abruptly. Both the PC and PS4 versions are also full of glitches and bugs that border on game-breaking, though they might occasionally allow the player to bypass puzzles entirely, rather than prevent them from progressing at all.

Wrap Up:

Contrast is a frequently beautiful mess

Many of Contrast’s individuals parts are beautiful, special, funny and even a little profound. Viewed as a whole though, with a little distance, the end result is confusing and difficult to look at. Contrast is rushed, messy, and, just like that, it'€™s done.

Contrast was reviewed using pre-release PC code and advance PS4 code provided by PR for Compulsion games. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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