By Tyler Lubben / December 10th, 2013
|Publisher||Focus Home Interactive|
|Release Date||November 15, 2013|
|Rating||ESRB – Teen|
Let me tell you a little something about myself. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered that I really like early 20th century culture. I spend most of my time (when I’m not reviewing games for all of you) listening to a 40’s music station on the radio and watching a TV channel that airs shows and movies that were made long before I was born. I place the blame for this squarely at the feet of Fallout 3 with Three Dog and his Galaxy News Radio station. Listening to that old big band music made traveling across the Capital Wasteland a joy, and cemented my love for that era of our culture. But I digress. When the call went out to review launch titles for the PlayStation 4, I jumped at the chance to play the puzzle-platformer, Contrast, as I found the turn-of-the-century vaudevillian themes quite attractive. So, let’s see if the gameplay and puzzles can match the charm that this game projects.
In Contrast, you are Dawn, the acrobatic imaginary(?) friend of a young girl named Didi Knight. Didi’s mother, Kat, is a singer, and often has to leave Didi alone at night while she works. Kat and Didi’s father, Johnny Fenris, are separated, so Didi is often all alone, save for the company of Dawn. And, as an unaccompanied minor is wont to do, Didi sneaks out to watch her mother sing at the nearby club. When Johnny shows up during Kat’s show with a plan (read: get-rich-quick scheme) to get the family back together, Didi takes it upon herself to make his plan a reality with the help of Dawn’s unique talents.
The key mechanic for advancing in Contrast is Dawn’s ability to meld onto any well-lit surface and become a shadow. She can then interact with other shadows as if they were solid. This allows her to access normally unreachable locations by climbing onto the shadows of faraway objects like crates, bicycles and even people. This power also extends to anything that Dawn touches, allowing her to turn anything she’s carrying into a shadow, as well. Aside from this, she also has a charging ability that lets her cross large gaps and break through weak structures. Dawn can freely enter and exit the shadows with a push of the R2 button, though she isn’t able to enter a space already occupied by another shadow, and she can also be forced back into the 3D plain if she gets squeezed between shadows or other unlit areas. The game is also littered with collectible items called Luminaries. These are used to power various machines found throughout the game. They’re usually needed to advance, but no one machine ever needs more than three at a time. Players will need to do a bit of investigating to find the Luminaries dotted throughout each chapter, but I never had to work too hard to find any. Even a standard bit of exploring will usually be more than enough to easily surpass any shutdown machines you may come across.
A good word to describe Contrast’s story is “predictable.” The cast is made up of the same tropes that you’ve seen time and time again – the perky, clever little girl, the working mom, the down-on-his-luck dad, the short gangster accompanied by a big, dumb cohort and the famous magician – you can probably guess the personality of each character long before you meet them. While the story may not be anything new, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. You really grow to care for the characters – especially Didi – as the story goes on. This is further helped by the fact that the voice acting is truly fantastic. Despite being an indie title, the cast is backed by some pretty great talent. Johnny is voiced by Elias Toufexis, probably best known for his role as Adam Jensen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, while Vanessa Matsui (Kat) and Bruce Dinsmore (Vincezo) have lent their talents to several movies, TV shows and games. The gangsters are the typical mean Italian men, but even that works for the simple story. Didi is probably the best of them all, which is good considering that you spend almost the entire game by her side. In my opinion, it’s pretty hard to find good child actors, especially in voice acting, but Teale Bishopric really nailed it. From Didi’s playful comments on the current situation to the fear and concern she shows for her parents’ problems, she makes it really easy to care about her. Considering the strong performances from the rest of the cast, it was strange, then, that Dawn is noticeably silent the entire game. She never reacts emotionally to anything in the game, which makes it difficult to really care about her as a character. Didi shows a lot of affection towards her, though it feels more like she is talking directly to the player, rather than to Dawn herself. This actually works out though, as it makes you feel more directly connected to Didi, rather than being an outside observer to Didi and Dawn’s relationship.
While the plot may not be anything special, the presentation is a completely different story. Chapters usually start innocently enough in Didi’s bedroom, which looks like a typical child’s room. However, things start to get trippy once you go out onto the streets. While walking around outside, you’ll eventually come across streets and chunks of earth that are inexplicably floating out in space. Other paths are simply gone, creating bottomless pits that hinder your progress. Additionally, while Dawn and Didi are fully 3D models, every other character in the game is nowhere to be found, at least on the 3D plain. Though Didi appears to be able to see everyone she converses with, only their shadows are visible to the player. Seeing these spectral figures populate the game, coupled with the strange environments outside caused me to begin to question what exactly I was experiencing. No one ever addressed the strange crumbling world, and Didi never seemed too concerned with the invisible people. Was this actually the way the world of Contrast was? Or was it all a fabrication from the mind of a child with a difficult home life? Or maybe Dawn truly is just an imaginary friend, and this is just how she perceives the world? I leave the analysis to someone smarter than me.
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