A broken silhouette of a good game
Shadows are a filtered version of reality. They can transform complicated three-dimensional objects into simple two-dimensional shapes projected on a background. Contrast is a game that demonstrates how losing one dimension, and becoming a shadow on the wall, is simpler than you might have imagined. Players assume the role of a voiceless female acrobat named Dawn, who has the uncanny ability to become a 2D shadow in a 3D world. As the imaginary friend of a little girl named Didi, you explore dark streets and help her find secrets buried within.
Dawn will use projected shadows to explore the world
Contrast tells its story using shadows. While Dawn and Didi are fully modelled in the 3D world, other characters are presented as silhouettes on walls. These are not shadows of invisible 3D characters, but rather 2D cut-outs animated to give that impression. The usually works, but some 2D cut-outs are warped, like when a character’s hat changes position from one scene to the next. These shadows are accompanied with strong voices, so they can be easily distinguished. Although they sometimes look like string-puppets, minimal overlapping and careful placement helps the shadows function well enough to tell its tale.
The world in Contrast is not completely open, but it is also not a rigid linear journey. The gloomy city streets allow some exploration, although the need to explore is negated when you are taken to most areas anyway. Within the darkened streets you will spot Luminaries hidden on balconies or ledges. These Luminaries are glowing orbs that can power a handful of contraptions but are mostly used as collectibles. Other collectible items, like letters or posters, fill the unnecessary achievement quota. Contrast does thankfully mix this with a more distinctive reason to explore. You might stumble upon a rotating gramophone, in the middle of the street, that illuminates an adjacent wall. Animated shadows begin a story sequence that fills the gaps while you clamber over characters.
The major gameplay component consists of two-dimensional platforming where you become a shadow on walls. Once a wall surface is suitably lit, you can stand near it and enter the shadow realm. Here you will jump over heads before the light fades and the shadows vanish. Shadows might move in a predicable cycle but sometimes you can create your own shadow ledges by moving objects in the 3D world. As you progress, you gain a dash ability that can push you through a shadow or transfer you over a larger gap. Contrast has no combat and the platforming barely develops beyond the initial design.
Playing the role of a princess is one of the poorer gameplay sections
The 2D shadow-platforming is generally basic and unrewarding. One particular segment, demonstrating the drab simplicity better than any other, has Dawn assuming the role of a princess. The princess needs to rescue a prince from a Troll and this translates into minutes of mundane platforming over bland landscapes and bamboo traps. After you rescue the prince, you then have to endure two more similar adventures just to finish the task. While the story dialogue is funny during this task, the platforming is unsatisfying for one short adventure, let alone three.
The game also pads puzzles with unnecessary actions resulting in tedium. Certain doorways prevent Dawn from passing through in her 3D form. You must rub against the wall and turn into a shadow to pass through. In another segment you must dash through barriers to create a bridge for Didi, unfortunately the last barrier is near an edge and Dawn falls. One puzzle has you dropping a box to project a shadow - but the precision of placement is far poorer than the tolerance for success. Even when you use boxes on pressure switches, the game will change camera positions and animate the resulting effect preventing you from doing anything for seconds. These restrictions do not mix well with the already rudimentary mechanics.
Jumping through shadows lacks refinement of other 2D platformers. The dash ability can land you inside a shadow which forces you back into the 3D world and you have to start the jumping sequence again. When the game utilizes moving shadows, you are in for a rough time as you flounder over objects and wait for the right time to make a leap. Usually the sequences are not long, but trying to manoeuvrer over oddly shaped shadows is bothersome and may get you stuck more than once. The two fortunate aspects of for the platforming are that you take no damage when falling and only lose significant progress if you quit the game. Even with simplistic mechanics in short segments, the platforming is more frustrating than it should be.
Despite the shallowness and clumsy platforming, there are some hints at greatness sprinkled throughout. Occasionally the game asks you to move boxes or balls between the 3D world and the 2D shadow-world. Transferring objects is satisfying - almost like the transition of objects through Portals in Valve’s unique puzzler. Creating shadows by moving 3D objects can actually be quite clever when the environment is not too messy. When you have control over the position of shadows, and can employ item transitions, it produces moments of delight. These elements are strong enough to have you wondering why they did not form the bulk of the journey.
Moving objects to create shadow platforms is effective while it lasts
Contrast is not a game you will regret playing, but it is difficult to enjoy or recommend. Moving from the 3D world into shadows is a neat technical achievement, but one that never reaches potential. Clumsy 2D platforming and tedious mechanics diminishes the few appealing aspects. This is a 3 hour adventure that should have been stronger. More multi-step puzzles, involving object transitions, would have helped. It also needed another shadow idea too, like being able to switch to Didi so you could create shadows for Dawn as she jumped on the wall. Contrast unfortunately lacks a significant amount of distinctive, enjoyable content and consequently is only an outline of an interesting concept.