These days, a puzzle game has to do a lot to stand out. It's not enough to just have rewarding logic problems, or just an intriguing premise, or just a pretty artstyle. Contrast might not tug at your heartstrings or tickle your gray matter as much as it wants to, though it's by no means a bad game. But in a post-Braid, -Fez, and -Limbo world, Contrast feels like it's just short of the kind of quality that would vault it into the ranks of the truly memorable.
Contrast's main mind-bending gimmick is the way your character, Dawn, can shift into shadows, morphing the gameplay from 3D exploration into a 2D platformer. Need to get a box past some unbreakable glass? Dawn can simply meld herself and an object into the shadows projected on the wall, pass through the glass, and pop back into reality on the other side. Stricken by existential grief because you can't cross a gap? Use the gigantic shadows of distant bystanders to your advantage, hopping on their enlarged heads like stepping stones. Dawn does acquire some new abilities, like a dash move, but Contrast is very much a thinking person's game, with minimal need for platforming dexterity. The puzzles themselves are quite clever, and climbing on the silhouettes of people and shapes is uniquely fun.
That kind of whimsy doesn't really apply to our doe-eyed, vacant-looking hero. Though Dawn is an acrobat by trade, she might as well be a mime, because she never utters a single word. To make up for the fact that Dawn's got all the personality of a Macy's mannequin, you're guided by Didi, an adorable young girl who's trying to reunite her parents. Didi's the only one who can see Dawn, and Dawn can only see Didi; the rest of the world exists around you, but you'll only perceive the shadows cast by other people.
As you explore the streets of 1920s Paris, the complete absence of company (besides Didi) will give you plenty of time to take in the sights. Contrast has a very distinct graphical style, with washed-out colors and an ashen, cartoony look. Because shadows are the central mechanic, the lighting is bold and bright around puzzles and hazy everywhere else, creating a dreamlike atmosphere. Sadly, the picturesque visuals get somewhat undermined by the character models, which move with stilted animations and make the silhouettes of others less believable.
Another instance of Contrast's sometimes-glitchy nature, besides the wall entrapment, is the way character models sometimes snap to their default positions. You know the one: standing upright, arms out perpendicular to their sides, looking straight on. Dawn and Didi have a tendency to flicker to this pose every once in a while--which, as you might imagine, does wonders for breaking your immersion. Oh, and if the camera ever gets stuck in Dawn's face, you'll be made terrifyingly aware that her eyeballs are half the size of her head.
Before you even attempt your first shadow step, you'll be stricken by how loose the controls feel. Dawn moves with a disorienting quickness, and her jumping physics aren't very tight--two factors that make the platforming feel spotty, though they're entirely adequate for a puzzle platformer. Unfortunately, traversal can also be exasperatingly glitchy. Getting stuck in walls is very much a thing in Contrast, and I held my breath many a time as I desperately fidgeted to get out. Usually, I could simply shadow-dash back into normalcy. Other times, I had to restart a segment and lose a good 10 minutes of progress, tempting me to tell Didi to solve her own damn problems while I was busy leaping into a bottomless chasm. Interactions with levers and moveable spotlights can be also be a bit finicky; you may have to dance in place before an object complies with your button presses.
Elements of magic and mystery come into play the farther you get, with larger-than-life set pieces and warped sections of the city that twist into nothingness. In particular, an amusement park ride through a pirate ship and a tinkerer's clock tower make for fantastic (and fantastical) levels. Though you may marvel at your surroundings, they never stop feeling so depressingly empty. Yes, you can overhear conversations and see the shadows of others, but only when a cutscene trigger or environmental puzzle ordains it. Yet there will be times when you're just standing alone on a noiseless, deserted street, overwhelmed by a sense of isolation. I'm not saying I wept uncontrollably for hours over Dawn's lonely existence, but the world just feels so lifeless sometimes.
In spite of Dawn's muteness, Didi's plight makes Contrast worth your effort. Helping Didi fix her family issues feels like your good deed for the day; really, the only discernible change Dawn can affect is Didi's happiness. When you're not covering for Didi, you'll adore the crooning of her songstress mother, though the musical numbers are few and far between. There's also plenty of intrigue going on behind the scenes, told through letters, posters, and scientific diagrams you find strewn throughout the stages. They help build up the atmosphere of Contrast's domain, but feel crammed in. You really can't miss 'em, seeing as they glow a bright white against the dark backdrops.
You can play through Contrast in an evening; four hours should be all you need to wrap up the story and nab every collectible. And I recommend that you do play it in one sitting. It makes Contrast feel like a quaint animated film, one you enjoyed watching once without the need to see it ever again. Dawn and Didi's escapades are amusing, but it feels like Contrast's premise could've gone a lot farther if Dawn or her surroundings had more humanity.
Contrast has a lot of heart, but its protagonist and environments lack some soul. It's not the best puzzle platformer you'll ever play, but it's far from the worst.
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