Review | Contrast – PS4
I want to love Contrast. I want to say it’s a phenomenal game with good story, intelligent puzzle design, and gorgeous graphics. Considering it’s free for Playstation Plus members on top of anything else, it’s hard to knock it. But after finishing the game, there’s only one other game I can think of that reminds me of this experience: Mass Effect 3. And I don’t mean that in a good way.
Contrast is a story of two dimensions, one of light, and one of shadow. You play as Dawn, a silent character escorting a little girl named Didi around the city. Didi’s father, Johnny, is in a bit of trouble with the mob. He needs to pay off a debt he owes, and he’s romantically underwater with Didi’s mother, Kat. Drama unfurls as Johnny conspires to run a circus to make the money that he needs to pay off the loan sharks and (probably) win back Kat, and it’s up to you as Dawn to simultaneously babysit Didi around the city while she directs you to fix Daddy’s circus so the mob doesn’t make him a special pair of cement shoes. Simple premise, but you’ve got a power at your disposal to help save the day: you can become a shadow.
As Dawn, you’ll literally jump into walls and become a shadow to cross over gaps, carry objects around obstacles, and reach goals. The circa-1920s world the game takes place in is beautiful, tinged with sepia tones and big band-era tunes that set a fantastic mood. Puzzles range from timing and carry-the-object-to-the-goal situations, but there are also light-based puzzles where you’ll manipulate objects in the physical realm to create shadow world bridges that are kind of neat. There are even plenty of fan-service references including Fight Club and a shout-out to the gaming charity Extra Life. Visually it’s enjoyable, and so much of Contrast could have been great if it were a comic, a cartoon, or a movie…but alas, Contrast is a game, and unfortunately the gameplay is so weak that it brings down the whole presentation, particularly near the game’s end.
The game takes place in three short acts: the first gets you acclimated to the world and Didi’s powers, the second makes you fix the various carnival attractions Daddy’s managed to bungle, and the third displays the show in all its glory. Puzzles are entertaining when they’re not inherently frustrating; in one particularly cool segment you fix a pirate-ship themed attraction and fire cannons at a giant wooden squid. It feels charming in a simple way, and bits of the simplicity and nostalgia for the 1920s are peppered all over Contrast. But the game seems to misstep in simple areas, and it’s depressing. “Luminaries,” floating power sources spread around each of the stages, have a counter to let you know if you’ve gathered all of them in a stage, but you don’t get anything for collecting them all. Not even a trophy! You can get a trophy for gathering all the collectibles in each Act, but many of the collectibles are titled things like “Science Picture” and feel tacked on rather than integrated into the story. But the further you get in the story, the more the game unravels due to one main culprit: glitches.
I’ll propose a theory: Contrast wasn’t ready for the big-time when it got chosen. Once Ubisoft announced that it was delaying Driveclub, one of its biggest E3-announced titles (other than Watch_Dogs, obviously), Sony realized that they needed a different game to give to PS Plus members and Compulsion Games stepped up to the challenge. Problem is that they weren’t quite done, and so they patched together what they could and shipped it. I mean, the first 60-70% plays relatively smoothly and error free, but the closer to the end I got, the more frequent and severe the glitches were. In particular, various glitches with the final puzzle of the game forced me to restart the level 7 times. That’s right: 7 forced restarts due to switches refusing to activate, getting stuck floating in the air, and boxes drifting off in the air towards eternity. Were you wondering why I brought up Mass Effect 3 at the beginning? This is why: the game ends terribly.
If I’m focusing on story, then my ending disappointment comes from what feels like an incomplete ending: no plot lines are truly resolved, and I didn’t even feel curious about the potential of a sequel. If I’m focusing on gameplay, then my ending disappointment stems from replaying the ending 7 TIMES to finally complete the game and fighting with glitches. Either way, I’m focusing on the ending, and I’m focusing on my disappointment. Which is a drag, considering the rest of the game was decent up until that point. In Mass Effect I had three full games, DLC, and hours upon hours of multiplayer to commit me to reaching and discovering the ending of Shepard and his companions. This is likely why I reacted with such fury when I finally reached Mass Effect 3‘s original ending. Contrast, on the other hand, only offers 2-4 hours of gameplay and shells of characters I wasn’t particularly attached to. Didi was cute, Johnny was endearing, but overall I wasn’t particularly concerned about the game by the time I reached the end…ironically, that made the ending (no spoilers) feel like even more of a slap in the face.
The summary: play Contrast if you A) have Playstation Plus and can get it for free, B) are looking for quick trophies, or C) hear that the game received patching and a Mass Effect 3 Director’s Cut-level reworking of its ending. Contrast is entertaining at times, that’s true, and it’s pretty. If you’re able to do a playthrough or two without running into the glitches, you could have a pretty good time with it. But for me, Contrast feels like it’s more shadows than light, and I’d rather continue my journey elsewhere.
Final Score: 3 out of 5