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April 8, 2014

PS4 Review – Contrast (2013)

by Master Pillow

Years from now when the Playstation 4’s successor is revealed most gamers will probably only remember developer Compulsion’s Contrast as being a last-minute replacement for Playstation Plus owners who fully expected to receive the vastly higher-profile racing game, Driveclub for free.   As the launch of the Playstation 4 neared it was summarily announced that Driveclub was delayed to the following year and would be replaced by Contrast, a third-person platform/puzzle game whose primary selling point was its striking 1920’s-inspired minimalist art style.

Contrast certainly makes a very strong initial impression through its stunning surreal art design that comes across as a mesmerizing melding of 1920’s-inspired architecture and film noir if told through the ramblings of a derange psychopath.  The world itself is fractured as players can easily see that the structures are basically housed on rocky, floating islands seemingly swimming along in a cloudy miasmic dream world.  Indeed, the entire game itself is so stylized that many will probably get the impression that it exudes a, “life is but a dream,” mentality but thankfully, the narrative manages to provide enough gravitas to justify its very existence.

In Contrast, players are given control of Dawn, a leggy silent protagonist, who follows along with a young girl named, Didi, in her quest to first help her parents reconcile with one another and then to aid them in their endeavor to run a successful circus.  The narrative’s initial focus on highly-charged domestic wrangling actually works by providing Didi with enough incentive for her mission even though the game has the propensity to make the dialogue be incredibly melodramatic and delivered with over-exaggerated intonation.

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The plot slowly reveals itself as nothing vaguely original but the game makes excellent use of its film noir setting by rendering the world in a style where all the characters save Didi and Dawn are shown as nothing but shadowy silhouettes emblazoned on whatever backdrop is behind them.

This plays into Contrast’s biggest hook and selling point besides its visuals as developer Compulsion has concocted a world where Dawn has the ability to basically shift between 3D and 2D by turning herself into a shadow.  Contrast, at its heart, is a simple platformer where Dawn has to navigate the environment in either a 3D rendered model or a 2D shadow.  This gaming mechanic is actually ingenious and allows the developers enormous leeway in crafting puzzles that take advantage of Dawn’s unique talents to phase in and out of the shadows.

However, while unique, the game does have a few niggling issues in this regard as the puzzles themselves fall on the decidedly easy side and it is not until the final levels that this gameplay mechanic really comes together organically.  Part of the problem stems from the fact that Contrast, much like other competing platformers, allows its protagonist to slowly learn new techniques as the game progresses but these moments are poorly spaced throughout the narrative.  In fact, players can bet that as soon as Dawn learns a new move that it will inevitably be used in exactly the same location.  Making matters worse, the game also doesn’t properly build upon Dawn’s expanding move set as each subsequent area doesn’t always require her to utilize everything she has learned to that point.

While Dawn can easily jump around the environment, the game relies heavily on its phasing mechanic more so than precision leaping.  In fact there’s really no way for Dawn to “kill herself” as the game allows her to fall from great heights with no penalty.  The only detrimental effect comes when Dawn falls off the world itself into the dreamy depths as the game will momentarily pause, reload and then respawn her at a convenient location.

While the jumping itself plays second fiddle to puzzle solving most players will not help noticing that controlling Dawn never really feels natural because of her tendency to seem as if she floating on top of the environment, rather than physically walking in it.  This extends to the actual platforming as Dawn doesn’t seem to obey the laws of physics as we know it and her animation comes across as if she is merely gliding forward inside of physically hurling through the air.  Gamers probably won’t take long acclimatizing to her floaty movement but it is nonetheless more of a distraction than it should have been.

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This issue is compounded by the inherently stiff character animation that affects Dawn and Didi as well as all the shadow-only individuals.  Watching the non-playable characters suffer from robotic motion might somehow be endearing especially when they are essentially pantomiming broad gestures but having Dawn move like a mannequin is quite a different matter.   Players will come to understand that Contrast is an indie title with a limited budget but the lack of any facial animation is exceedingly evident when the camera decides to focus on their heads.

Though the decision to render everyone save Dawn and Didi in silhouette works artistically it also makes the entire game feel incredibly lifeless as the protagonists wander through ghostly deserted buildings and streets.  There is also no doubt that this stylistic decision has also made the game’s development much easier to handle for Compulsion’s programmers who don’t have to deal with rendering crowds of people in every environment.

The shadow puzzles themselves where Dawn has to constantly phase from 3D to 2D are visually striking but they fall into traditional territory where players need to throw switches or move wooden crates around the room in order to change the direction of light sources.  Picking up and moving crates is about as boring as it ever was and it is a bit lamentable that developer Compulsion couldn’t figure out a unique approach to utilizing them or different sets of objects.

To attempt to break the monotony, Compulsion has included a ton of collectible items to be found and, for once, these objects carry some narrative worth as each one either reveals character backstory or expands on some of the game’s metaphysical elements such as providing technical explanation about the universe having different planes of existence.  While this sounds great in theory it also accentuates one of the game’s most glaring problems being that at about 3-4 hours in length, that the whole experience feels abnormally truncated.  Just when it seems that the narrative is starting to reveal its secrets the entire game hits the final credit roll leaving insufficient time for either character catharsis or sufficient explanation.

Though Contrast is always visually captivating it comes with a significant cost being that it is plagued with a series of weird bugs and glitches.  Jumping within the shadows is often hit or miss as Dawn can easily get stuck in awkward positions causing her to automatically phase back into corporeal form.  These hitches pale in comparison to the game breaking bugs, many of them having to do with the wooden crates themselves, that will do nothing but cause gamers to rage.

For some unknown reason, the crates have the propensity for disappearing into thin air and not being able to respawn.  One such bug occurs almost exactly at the end of the game where an errant flick of the wrist by gamers can possibility lead to a crate floating off into mid-air never to be seen again.  The crate is supposed to automatically respawn in such cases but the game doesn’t seem to register its disappearance into the Phantom Zone meaning that gamers become essentially stuck with no choice but to reload a past save which, unfortunately, is usually set too far back forcing gamers to replay large chunks of already cleared stages.

Although Contrast is a Playstation 4 launch title its overall performance on Sony’s new system is rather disappointing as the game is prone to massive stuttering especially when gamers decide to spin the camera around Dawn.  Though it is understandable that launch titles suffer from such issues the fact remains that Contrast is nowhere near the graphical showcase of a Killzone Shadow Fall or Knack and comes across as an upscaled last-gen title that was primarily designed for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.  The bouts of jerkiness really accentuate the feeling that the game is unoptimized to take advantage of the Playstation 4’s enormous increase in horsepower and it is lamentable that developer Compulsion hasn’t addressed some of these bugs and performance issues with a post-launch patch.

Much like other puzzle-heavy games, Contrast suffers mightily in replayability as there is no compelling hook for gamers to keep it installed on their Playstation 4 hard drives as the solutions never change.  Those that do decide to replay the game will find that they can probably blow through the entire title in a little over one hour.  The game’s lack of replayability shouldn’t affect most players considering that Contrast was made free of charge for Playstation Plus owners.  However, those who somehow don’t subscribe to Sony’s Online service are asked to pony up a premium $14.99 and the game’s curt length is a real impediment.

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Contrast is a mildly entertaining puzzle-platformer with a strong visual sense of style and a decent enough gameplay hook that allows its protagonist to phase from corporeal to incorporeal form.  There is certainly some fun to be had at watching the stellar art design and presentation and though many might think the game is merely aping something like Bioshock which, features designs inspired from the same time period, the two titles could not be more dissimilar.

In an era that is filled with myriad testosterone-filled first-person shooters all set in modern times, it is nonetheless refreshing that some developers are drawn to showcasing different eras.  That said Contrast is an altogether discombobulated product with suspect pacing featuring a vague fractured narrative along with an easy difficulty.  Throw in a host of glitches and bugs that are often totally game-breaking and the result is a title that serves as a reminder to developers to not rush their titles to market before they are sufficiently tested.  This is unfortunate as the game certainly has potential and there is ample room for developer Compulsion to build upon the foundation that is present, especially the main hook of having Dawn navigate the world in both 3D and 2D.  This is a well-intentioned first title for the developers and here’s hoping that they learn from some of their rookie mistakes.

** out of ****

Developer: Compulsion Games

Release US: 11/15/2013

Release EU: 11/22/2013

© 2014 The Galactic Pillow

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