Saturday, November 16, 2013

Game Review - Contrast (XBLA, 2013)

One of the great joys of the gaming world is discovering some under-appreciated title and enjoying the hell out of it before any of your friends.  I like to keep an eye out for new releases that aren't accompanied by the multi-million dollar fanfare that big game companies bring to the table, and I especially like to give smaller developers a vote of confidence with my wallet.

Naturally, when I saw Contrast’s release yesterday, I was intrigued.  A game that combines clever manipulation of light and shadow with a gritty noir art style?  Of course I’m in!  While it starts strong, however, the game fails to build any serious momentum, so though it’s fun and interesting, it’s not very exciting.  Here’s why:

Contrast gives you control of Dawn, the best friend of a young girl named Didi.  It opens with Didi’s mother tucking her into bed for the night, only to have Didi immediately escape her room to go watch her mother’s performance at a local cabaret.  What ensues is a somewhat cliché story about hard times and desperate men, which is awfully disappointing because the plot could have been much more engrossing.

But that’s ok, because Dawn is invisible to everyone but Didi, and Didi and Dawn are the only characters the player ever gets to see; all other characters are represented only by the shadows they cast.  That is an incredibly cool storytelling device, and it makes the otherwise lackluster storyline a lot more entertaining.

That visual element gets mixed into the core components of the gameplay, too.  Dawn has the unique ability to transform into a shadow on a lighted wall, allowing her to interact directly with other shadows and maneuver through areas that would otherwise be inaccessible.  As such, the majority of the game revolves around the manipulation of light and shadow.  It’s a really nifty mechanic, allowing for clever puzzles and surprising interactions with the environment. 

The game’s biggest flaw is the lack of difficult puzzles.  I didn't find any of them to be very hard at all, although there were a couple that took a while because I couldn't quite figure out what the game wanted me to do (the source of the worst kind of puzzle frustrations…).  The end result is a mere 3-5 hour experience without a whole lot of challenge, which just seems way too short for the $15 price tag.  It was fun while it lasted, but it was much too brief.

In the end, Contrast feels like a beautifully-packaged proof of concept.  The wonderful art style and animation (save for the shadows’ hands – they all look like they’re wearing Mickey Mouse’s gloves) coupled with subtle music develop a wonderful atmosphere, and the voice acting is solid, even if the script is a little stereotypical.

With all that said, there are a few plot pieces that appear in the latter half of the game that hint at a complex back story, but those ideas aren't really developed.  They either seem like bizarre twists just for the sake of having a twist (i.e., twists that don’t really serve a narrative purpose), or they could be intentionally setting up DLC or a sequel.  I have no idea if there are already plans for new content in the future, but even if there will be another adventure somewhere down the line, it kind of feels like a cheap shot to leave those threads hanging.

Contrast is a beautiful game based on a clever mechanic.  It’s interesting to see it in action, and it requires the player to approach the game world in a somewhat unusual way, which makes it fairly entertaining.  It’s awfully short, it’s pretty easy, and it has virtually no replay value, so the price of admission seems a bit steep, but it’s worth a look if you like puzzle games and are hankering for a neat new mechanic.  It may not win any awards, but it’s a decent way to spend an afternoon.

My Rating: 6/10 – decent.