Puzzlers have to employ every bit of trickery they possibly can these days in order to reel in an audience.
Gimmickry runs rampant in the genre, and though some titles have delivered on their promises and then some, the market is so saturated that it’s tough to weed out what’s worth your time and what falls into the bucket of “tried to do more and failed.”
Contrast is a game that’s content to waver between the plane of the “try hard” and Fez copycats rather than allow players to simply bask in its gorgeous world and lush environments.
It’s gorgeous, ambitious, and engaging at times, but it’s little more than an arty exercise in changing perspective from what you expect to see and what’s really there. It also, quite unfortunately, feels unfinished.
Step into the shoes of the lithe Dawn, an acrobatic clad in typical circus performer attire that, ironically, make her blend into her surroundings rather than stand out as she would in the real world.
The same could be said for the game as a whole, as players acclimate themselves to Dawn’s shape-shifting abilities. Her forte is shifting into shadows, which transforms a 3D world into a 2D platformer when the need arises.
Dawn can take objects with her into the 2D plane, which is advantageous when faced with quandaries that simply can’t be solved the conventional way.
The shadows cast on walls by crowds of folks on the city streets open up new paths for Dawn to take as she flits through the whimsical sights and sounds of 1920s Paris.
Though there’s the potential for a story to be told via Dawn, she acts as the dreaded silent protagonist, saying absolutely nothing.
Instead, Contrast allows the narrative to unfold via Didi, a young girl who’s been separated from her parents.
In a bizarre twist, Dawn and Didi are the only ones in this plane who can see each other as they navigate the warmly-lit hues of a city at twilight.
Of course, sneaking through shadows and keeping out of the public eye matters little, since there’s hardly anyone or anything in the city other than our two heroines to speak of.
The occasional city-dwellers arise here and there, but only to serve as puzzle-solving aids.
You may as well be traversing a deserted city, which would work if this were a survival horror title, but the overwhelming sense of emptiness felt during play is less of an existential yearning and more frustrating – if there’s so much space to have been put to use, why leave the game feeling as unfinished as it is?
The picturesque city and Dawn’s shadowy skill set aren’t enough to offset these issues either, with frustrating and loose controls to combat with as well as non-working object interactivity.
Glitches abound as well, and it’s not uncommon to find yourself forced to restart some previous checkpoints time and time again.
Slipping in and out of shadows, altering reality in ways to suit Dawn, and wordlessly creeping through the city should feel much less stunted and more like a cohesive whole – and that’s certainly not the case here.
It’s easy to want to love Contrast, but it’s as fickle as Dawn is unreadable and emotionless. After spending some time with it, it’s easy to wonder if it’s even capable of being loved.
Didi is the one driving force that will end up keeping players glued to their console throughout the four-hour journey, and even her plight isn’t dire enough to work past being stuck in walls, slippery jumps, and a mishmash of issues that should have been polished well before release.
Contrast is far from a disaster, but in the end you’ll want to opt for a puzzler with stronger core mechanics – and a stronger heart.