Long setups that never actually result in anything meaningful are a trademark of the artist who creates while having nothing to say; everything is designed so as to suggest a deeper meaning, but nothing ends up delivering on that promise as you’re led deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole until things have become so complicated that any kind of sane-sounding explanation becomes impossible. That’s not to say that the end result is necessarily bad, but it’s most definitely not art despite the artist’s desperate attempts to make it so. This is Contrast in a nutshell, a game that spends several hours engrossing you in a time period filled not only with jazzy music and organized crime, but also two parallel worlds that are largely unaware of one another. While the latter is the more interesting element of the two, only the former lives up to its potential and makes the game worth recommending thanks to the dual worlds and the rules/purpose behind them being self-contradictory or otherwise left shrouded in mystery.
Great atmosphere, terrible story
In Contrast, you play as the inexplicably mute trapeze artist Dawn, who acts as an invisible friend to the precocious Didi. To everyone else in the world, Dawn can’t be seen. Why, you ask? Because reasons. In truth, this is one of many things that’s left unexplored by the game, and it’s particularly confusing because of Dawn’s peculiar ability to shift between the 3D world and the world of shadows (which is represented as literal shadows, created by harsh lighting casting shadows on specific walls).
Apart from Dawn and Didi, all characters in the game exist in the shadow world, suggesting that it’s the “main” or “real” world. As for why these characters remain completely oblivious to Dawn’s presence even when she shifts into the shadow world where they exist, you’ll be left with nothing but theories by the end of the game. These types of questions simply aren’t explored, and even worse, the pieces of information that you’re given to figure things out for yourself don’t fit together. Backstory is delivered through collectibles that are littered throughout the playable areas, and while these little pieces of information don’t directly contradict each other, any theories you can come up with from one piece of information will be shot dead by another. On the rare occasions where you come up with a theory that meshes with the other collectibles, it’ll be directly contradicted by certain lines of dialogue. Unfortunately, I can’t get into details to explain just how poorly everything fits together because all of the most relevant pieces of information come at the very end of the game and could be considered major spoilers, but suffice it to say that nothing in the game supports Dawn’s continued presence and abilities, nor does the game address why the playable area (which is to say, the 3D area outside of the shadow world) has weirdly dystopian-seeming floating umbrellas and random abysses.
If you ignore all of that, however, then you’re left with a fairly interesting story of Didi’s family. Her “rising star” performer of a mother has kicked her father out at the beginning of the game, and she ends up sneaking out (as she often does) and following both of them. Her father has a plan to make a bunch of money with a circus and use that success to get his family back—one of many such plans that are revealed to have failed repeatedly over the years, painting the picture of a fairly incompetent and gullible man—and Didi is soon thereafter running around with Dawn, using her special abilities to clean up his messes and keep him out of trouble with the gangsters he’s borrowed money from. This is all fairly vanilla, but the slightly-noir, jazzy atmosphere of the places you visit is more than enough to make the game worth recommending all on its own. In fact, I fell in love with the game’s style the very first time I started the game because of its opening song, which is a sneak peek into the kind of atmosphere the game routinely creates.
The shadow world is flawed, but actually pretty entertaining
Putting aside its pretentious non-story, Contrast’s big innovation is the ability to shift into the shadows and use them as a kind of 2D platforming section, albeit one that sometimes wraps around walls. It’s an interesting mechanic, and the smaller areas ensure that it’s usually pretty clear what you have to do. This is especially welcome as you’re constantly learning about how the two worlds are able to interact and it’s not always obvious what you’re able to do.
For example, it wasn’t immediately obvious that you could shift into the shadow world while holding an item and have that item follow with you into the shadow world, ditching its physical form in favor of a shadow form. It’s also not obvious that you can focus spotlights to move boxes that have been shifted into the shadows up to higher platforms. That last one isn’t necessary until around the last 20 minutes or so of the game, so the relative simplicity of the puzzles is welcome. After all, anything too elaborate wouldn’t mesh well with the game’s tendency to leave you to figure things like that out on your own, and would make puzzles needlessly frustrating, especially given the shadow world’s problems.
Being able to shift into the shadow world is interesting, but it comes with some strange downsides. For one, you can only shift when there’s harsh lighting creating very dark shadows, which limits the areas where you can actually use your powers. That’s offset somewhat by the fact that the world is littered with random spotlights, but it would have been entertaining to use Dawn’s powers a bit more frequently. The second and more notable downside is that you’re ejected from the shadow world whenever something in the 2D space crushes you rather than being killed outright (in fact, there are no lives or deaths—even falling down one of the ubiquitous chasms does little more than set you back a few seconds earlier). There’s nothing wrong with this in theory, but the game isn’t very accurate when determining when you’re being crushed, with the end result being that you can be pushed out of the shadow world at the most bizarre times, turning certain platforming sections into a nightmare. One of the most criticized that I’ve seen is the merry-go-round section, where you have to use your ability to dash through thin shadows to climb the silhouettes of carousel horses, and then those of stars and spaceships. Should you be ejected from the shadow world (which is weirdly likely during this particular section, especially if you’re using a keyboard and mouse), you have to start from the bottom.
Luminaries and collectibles
As I mentioned earlier, there are collectibles littered throughout levels that give you small pieces of backstory or just details that seem relevant to what’s happening. Again, there’s no deciphering the game’s plot because it’s just a bunch of random stuff thrown together without any thought being put into it all making sense, but I still think it’s worth finding all the collectibles. Fortunately, they’re usually right out in the open, barring a few that require checking behind an area you wouldn’t have thought to look (like behind the stage in a circus tent). It’s also worth mentioning that while early collectibles unlock one after another when you view them—which is to say that the first one you find is located in the first collectible tab, the second in the second, and so on—those at the very end are in a completely random order, which made me think that I had missed several of them. This is just a quirk of the game, however, and it turned out that I hadn’t missed any despite them showing up in a seemingly random order.
Then you have luminaries, which are glowing orbs you can pick up around levels. Certain parts of the game require you powering things on, usually to create light so that you can shift into the shadow world, and powering these things is as simple as depositing a certain number of the luminaries that you’ve collected. This means that a few areas require running around collecting luminaries before allowing you to progress, but there are usually enough of them lying around in easily accessible areas for this to not be too much of a hassle. I ended up collecting all of the luminaries anyway, even though this doesn’t seem to accomplish anything other than giving the player a warm fuzzy feeling knowing that nothing was left undiscovered. Some luminaries are only accessible by touching rare glowing items in the game world, which play back a scene from earlier in the game on a nearby wall and allow you to platform on top of the characters in them in order to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. This is yet more weirdness left unexplained by the story, but it’s admittedly entertaining using a character’s head as a platform.
Game length, checkpoint saves and miscellaneous weirdness
Even taking my time to find every collectible and luminary, the game only lasted me 4-5 hours. That seems to be around the average, and you can rush through the game even faster than that if you know what you’re doing. This short length ensures that the game’s automatic checkpoint saves aren’t as bad as they are in longer games, but I’d still have preferred manual saves. In fact, there’s a part of the game where you have to help Didi fix a pirate ship ride, and this is broken up into two different sections. For some reason, there’s no save between the two sections, and when life stuff™ required exiting the game, I found that I had to start from the beginning of the puzzle, which was incredibly annoying. Fortunately, the rest of the game seems to be pretty good about save placement.
There’s all kinds of weirdness that you’re constantly having to contend with in Contrast. Take the abysses that litter the game world; think that there might be something hidden around them and plan to use the nearby platforms to search for said hidden treasure? Yeah, good luck with that, because those aren’t actually platforms and you’ll fall right through them. Then there’s the opposite problem of invisible walls showing up where their presence makes no sense. Expect to run into random barriers when you least expect it. Then there are the occasional graphical problems with the shadows where characters’ limbs become completely detached from their bodies for some reason. Even Dawn isn’t immune from this kind of shadowy weirdness. All of this just serves to highlight the fact that the physics and collision are less than ideal and can cause all kinds of weird problems; there’s an entire section where you have to fill in as the princess in a puppet play that highlights just how awkward the physics can be, from various things killing you out of nowhere to momentum and the game’s physics making it difficult to climb certain areas to escape danger or cleanly leap over a deadly pit. It’s an ugly section fraught with annoying trial-and-error gameplay, and Dawn’s ability to dash is inexplicably taken away from you, making her that much harder to control.
Great music, interesting graphics
I’ve already ranted about how much I enjoyed the music, but even the non-jazzy music manages to be great. I found myself wandering the mid-game circus just to listen to the circus music, and the rest of the soundtrack is equally great, as is all of the voice acting. The graphics are perhaps a bit more mixed of a bag, and some may consider it a bit of a cop-out that only Didi and Dawn have actual character models rather than being shadows, but I felt that it worked in the context of the game and kept things interesting. The game as a whole is a bit on the darker side, as well, which adds to the atmosphere quite a bit.