Shining a light into the shadows, then running on them
The first thing that hits you about Contrast is the aesthetic of the game. That seems obvious. But when a world is set in a odd 1930s-esque shadow world, if that aesthetic doesn't grab you it's doing something wrong. But Contrast pulls it off with panache, everything is art deco and a little noirish with molls and gangsters sprinkled liberally, while jazz music and cabaret songs fill out the soundtrack. But that's only half the look of the game. The other half is shadows which is done incredibly well too, but that takes some explaining.
You play Dawn, an acrobat who seems to be the imaginary friend of little girl called Didi. The two of you are the only people modelled in the game, the rest are simply represented as shadows - which makes for a unique viewing, looks cool, and I imagine saved some money in the art department. These shadows mostly represent Didi's family and the people troubling them. Her mum who's a rather popular cabaret but struggling in the mother department, the down on her luck Dad, and more that if I explained would ruin half the game. It's a cute story of a kid stuck in the middle of a complicated relationship and doing all she can do to fix things, with a little help from her imaginary friend. The fact you have the ability to shift into a shadow, giving you the ability to use these dark projections for running along instead of pesky physical objects is a big help.
Using bikes in new and unusual ways
It is also an ingenious premise for a puzzle platformer, as you manipulate light sources to create new pathways for your lithe shadow dancer to jump across. It's less about timing and more about getting the right pattern on the walls. For the most part you enter an area where you need to get higher, or across a gaping hole in the ground and you have to figure out how to make shapes on walls that let you do that. This usually involves moving bits of the environment or finding a new lamp to turn on or move. The puzzles are nice, with the right amount of head scratching before they get annoyingly impenetrable. Some elements like shifting light sources could have been used more, and for the most part they feel slightly detached from the story the rest of the game is telling. Didi just stands by twiddling her thumbs waiting for everything to be solved for her. Very occasionally she's needed for the solution, but that's all scripted, and it would have been nice to actually have the player make that decision. Also considering how disconnected Dawn's world seems to the shadows of Didi's family you're left slightly in the dark as to how the two worlds interact.
When you think how much effort has been put into the look of the game it's unfortunate then that Contrast's control and animation seem to date back to the PS2-era. They just feel incredibly primitive to what we're used to from today's 3D platformers. Even down to Dawn's jump looking incredibly basic, and she weirdly stops mid arc to just drop to the ground. Stairs don't seem to really exist as her feet hover a good few inches off the ground and movement in general feels a bit rushed. In a game that's all about looks, what should be minor details stick out like a sore thumb, especially as she's the only character in the whole game who has any real animation.
The 1920s atmosphere is perfect
It doesn't help that some geometry is glitchy, and it being incredibly easy to pass into that weird nether-realm of computer games where you can see the world inverted in a huge expanse of nothing. Again this is more problematic in Contrast than it should be since your super power is to become part of that geometry. Thankfully load times and respawns are rather quick.
The game is also full of little references to other games and franchises throughout, including a rather knowing wink to Limbo to make it all okay when the game starts to remind you of it just a tad too much. Thankfully they never overtake the main purpose of the game, or hog the limelight, just neat nods for the eagle eyed gamer. Except Limbo, which is pretty blatant.
References to classics like Limbo are cleverly worked in, and fit the context well. Mostly
It's also pretty short, about two to three hours, but it works at that length. The puzzles are just about getting tried and tested, and the story couldn't be lengthened without just dragging it out. The length it is, is perfect and stays on the right side of touching. However, there's little replayability here either. There's a few collectibles, two types. One set explains the story a little deeper, and the other, Luminaries which are needed for a couple of the puzzles, yet the game has about five times what you'll need and I never found any other point to them, other than that niggling worry that collecting them all might reveal something more.
Contrast works as a bite size game, and Compulsion Games were clever enough to realise that. It's a neat little puzzle platformer with a very interesting premise. It doesn't amaze, but it does satisfy. If you've got a couple of hours to spare and looking for something a little taxing but won't strain your brain tissue too much.
The song. It is an absolutely fantastic song that sounds straight out of a 20s club, by an appropriately sexy cabaret singer. Maybe when you use people's shadows as platforms, it brings a smile as someone moves about letting you reach further.