The handwritten note you find on the coffee table reads like a heart breaking. It begins crisply and awkwardly, with the gravitas of someone not used to being official. Then, the panic swells and each throb of grief brings out more and more crossed-out remarks, until the ending is just a blur of lines. This is not the letter from a woman in charge of her faculties, this is a plea from a mother down on her knees. "Please don't take away my little girl. She is the one thing that keeps me from going crazy."
It's disquieting without ever being in the forefront of your experience with Contrast. The entreaty that Kay Knight writes to Child Services is a collectible, one of the many littering this phantasmagorical world of 1930's gangsters and cabaret singers. Neither Didi, the dark-eyed pixie at the heart of the story, nor any of the adults you encounter ever remark on the things you find. They're not plot devices but supplemental material, your way of peeling back the curtains on this microcosm of broken families. Reality can be unkind even when no one wants to talk about it.
Compulsion Games' first release is weird. At heart, it's a 2D platformer in a three-dimensional world. Dawn, the whip-thin acrobat-slash-imaginary-friend you're put in control of, has the ability to shift in and out of the shadows which, in turn, allows you to do things like ride silhouettes up to otherwise inaccessible locations. From time to time, Contrast implements this mechanic with incredible skill. There's a sequence in a run-down amusement park so delightfully evocative of LIMBO that I couldn't help but smile even though it involved me being chased down by ravenous, mechanical spiders. But those occasions aren't common or delivered in a very organic fashion.
Almost every puzzle segment in Contrast is predated with instruction from Didi. Unlock this door. Move the cart. Go here. Do that. It's a jarring sensation each time it happens because of how it breaks the momentum of this luscious world. Everything just stops until you've resolved the problem. Sometimes, it isn't so bad. A little girl with no way to safely rappel down a building will wait until the coast is clear. But it gets /awkward/ when you see Didi's parents repeat the same circuit of motions again and again, silent and unfeeling, until you've figured things out.
Even worse are the glitches, the bugs, the sandpaper-roughness of the mechanics. While traversing a wall, Dawn's shadow can sometimes lose its joints or begin levitating for no reason whatsoever. Bump up against an object and you might just find Dawn suddenly aping a crucified marionette. Still, all those little imperfections are tolerable next to Contrast's most severe issues. Dawn has an irrepressible fondness for getting stuck in walls and tumbling helplessly through the environment into an eternal abyss. The first is occasionally curable but the second will have you restarting from the last checkpoint, an act that can sometimes result in huge chunks of wasted time.
I wouldn't be so outraged about all this were it not for the fact that everything else about Contrast is breathtaking. It's always night in the city but it's not a darkness that is remotely oppressive. The skies are festooned with constellations, the moon impossibly perfect and the buildings feel like an architect's twilight-veiled fairy tale. This is romance, the setting screams. This is a world where everyone but a little girl and her maybe imaginary friend are shadows. This is magic and wonder and fantasy and all those things we associate with circuses and being a child. Unrealistic, perhaps, but why waste time arguing about this dream of a Paris in the clouds when you can run through its streets?
The music is equally superb. The jazzy instrumentals perfectly match the world Compulsion Games has built. Though she sings far too rarely for my liking, it's hard not to get a little giddy when our motherly songbird unleashes that velvety voice. Similarly, the voice acting feels on par if a little ham-fisted, something which bothers me a lot less than I thought it would. We're scrutinizing Contrast through the lens of a child, after all and children are prone to framing the world in big, blocky crayon letters.
But all that plays second fiddle to the story. Contrast's main conceit is a simple one, as old as time and just as tragic: A father screws up one too many times. His wife -- Kat might be one of those gloriously self-possessed women I've seen in a video game yet -- walks out, unwilling to subject their daughter to more of his potentially dangerous antics. He comes back, swearing he changed. The child finds out and begins working to orchestrate a happy reunion. Mind you, this isn't the only narrative. Just the most heartfelt. Sandwiched in between the tribulations of a family is an examination of a man at his worst, of what it's like to be not enough, of single parenthood, of being unwanted. Contrast treads across darker waters with surprising grace. The story related by the collectibles is almost unnerving. And, of course, there's Dawn who is another mystery all unto her own.
Like a carousel of broken dreams, Contrast's wings are handicapped by its mechanical inadequacies and staccato pacing. But it's still beautiful, still magnificent. If Compulsion Games ever patches Contrast so you aren't falling through the floor every other minute, this would become one hell of a show. (Instead of just hell.)
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals:Contrast is gorgeous. From its light-strewn rooftops to its overall art direction to the cardboard forest of the circus, everything about Contrast's looks impress.
- Music and Sound:While Kat doesn't sing nearly enough during the game, her vocals remain the best I've heard in a long time. I'd kill to see a duet between the songbird behind our leading lady and Supergiant Games' Ashley Barrett. Happily, the singing isn't the only highlight. Contrast's soundtrack is absolutely divine, so much so that I've got some of the tracks playing on loop right now.
- Interface:In theory, Contrast has a wonderfully simplified interface. To navigate the world, you use WASD keys. To interact with objects, you use E. Turning Dawn into a two-dimensional shadow is literally as easy as pressing the right mouse button near a wall. Unfortunately, in spite of the streamlined controls, Contrast makes it a Herculean task to do anything without glitching through yet another bloody wall.
- Lasting Appeal:Unless you're the sort who compulsively harvests every available collectible, your romance with Contrast is likely to be short-lived.