I'd seen enough to be attracted by the evocative art, glanced over the quotes that'd dogged its marketing - another promising digital title - but had not looked beyond since no news shifts or previews bringing me and it together at any point previous.
A few hours later I'm watching the credits roll, unsatisfied. Mainly with the story's conclusion, which left me with even more lingering questions and without one single clear answer. But the afternoon's session had left me troubled that Contrast's great premise, storytelling and world were let down by a scattershot of issues which tore the polish off the title.
The game's available on multiple formats already, but as part of the free game PS Plus incentive (which also includes Housemarque's Resogun) and as excuse to continue to trial our office PS4 ahead of our hardware verdict and its launch at this week's end, I settled down with a DualShock 4 in my hand just after lunch.
Contrast's a third-person puzzle adventure, putting you in the heels and stockings of a silent protagonist whose name we don't know and who's identity we know even less of. Is she the imagined friend of the young girl who she's the constant companion of? An inter-dimensional imp who can straddle two planes of existence? A makeup smeared angel in disguise? A really weird alternate version of Bioshock's Elizabeth (disclaimer: she's not)?
While you let your theory cook in your noggin, you'll be wandering a dream-like version of a European city (artistically designed here as a series of streets and hub areas built onto interconnecting islands) and helping your pint-sized ward spy on her parents and help her help them along their way.
The game mainlines the film noir genre and comes complete with all its trappings. The mother is a club singer with the curves of Jessica Rabbit, her father a down 'n out trickster clad in a sharp suit trying to pull - seemingly - one last con. A touring stage magician factors in, as well as a couple of heavies, but mainly its about doomed hope and bittersweet romances. All the tropes of the cinematic genre it apes if with one conceit; aside from you and your young friend, only the characters' silhouettes can be seen.
It's a visually pleasing design choice even as you question its oddity. But this almost voyeuristic aspect is also centre to Contrast's main gameplay mechanics: the interactive aspects of light and shadow. Your character (who we eventually find out is named Dawn), can merge into any wall or flat surface that has a direct light cast upon it with a button tap, and use the environment's shadows as platforms to navigate your way to higher platforms, collectables or otherwise inaccessible story beats. Another button tap will transfer you back from 2D shadow to 3D character.
The trick's shown within the first minute of the game's opening, with the creators then slowly adding flourishes; a dash move lets you pass through thin shadows, or shifting the light source (such as projectors, lamps and spotlights) to distend, enlarge or simply shift the shadows' position to create new platforms. Soon you'll be able to take objects into the shadow world with you.
Such tricks are used sparingly so the shadow puppet play continues to impress throughout the game. A lantern behind an upturned bicycle casts a series of massive moving cogs (its wheels) and platforms (its pedals), or a planetarium's solar system model makes for a head-scratcher as you try and line up shadows to move an object from one floor to another.
There's other elaborations equally as unique and not worth spoiling here, mainly because of the game's brevity mentioning any would spoil a good chunk of the experience. And it is a game worth experiencing, even it's not one that can be wholly recommended - let's talk about that polish and a few other things.
Control over Dawn isn't flawless. She feels light as a feather. In the shadows that's mostly fine, as exiting a lighted area reverts back to normal form. But you're never as convinced to landing a leap as you would with any other 2D platformer. Dawn feels like she's on skates. When in the 'real' world, she's twitchy, with no sense of weight to her movements or jumps. It's not a massive issue, as platforming in this world isn't extensive. But when making a grab for ledges, you notice she freezes in the animation and then is almost magnetised to the ledge - it's the matter of a split second, but it's noticeable.
More so were the occasions when I tried to drop a box she was carrying, only for crate to slow crawl down her body, as Dawn herself was frozen, floating on the spot. I can excuse the somewhat jerky framerate, but glitches like this take the sheen of an otherwise lovely-looking game.
Is the game too short? In the digital age when a brief yet fantastic experience is judged better than a longer yet less stimulating one, then no. However, there's less dabbling with the shadows than you'd like; almost if the creators only had time to think up of a handful and tried to make each one a set piece. The puzzles are never too devilishly complex, while collectables are too easily found, requiring little in the way of exploration.
Contrast ends as ambiguously - and ambitiously - as it begins, but without the tugging of emotions that its digital contemporaries have managed. You're left instead asking "was that it?" And as the credits roll back to the main menu, and only a few Trophies to complete the set left, you realise it is. If you're willing to accede to the twitchy controls and prefer a mystery to a clear answer, then Contrast is worth experiencing; even if the prestige of its central conceit isn't as clever as you'd wish it to be.
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