Tag Archives: Compulsion Games

Contrast Review: Just a Shadow

Contrast

It’s appropriate that Contrast deals with shadows. As light falls upon a floor and casts shapes on the ground, you understand that these objects are really just a single face of something else: a box, a lamp, or a person. And just like that, the game itself features many single attributes that could make something great. Contrast, however, never quite comes together in the way you’d hope.

Contrast is the first release from Montreal-based Compulsion Games. It tells the story of a little girl named Didi and her invisible friend Dawn, a slinky acrobatic woman, as they explore via puzzle-solving and platform-jumping the mysteriously broken world of a 1920s Europe. Or maybe it’s a 1930s US. It’s really hard to tell.

It’s hard to tell a lot of things about the games story, actually, but not in any meaningful or interesting way. The noir setting is visually beautiful with an almost ethereal bloom that highlights the otherworldly art deco design. If we lived in a world of floating detached streets and shadow people, this is how I would want it to look.

All of which should be in service of both the story and the gameplay, and it almost fails on both fronts. The story starts with two sizable scoops of mystery. How can Didi see Dawn but no one else can? What does her mom know about her father’s disappearance that she isn’t telling us? Where does Dawn go when she isn’t with Didi? It’s a great invitation for exploration with Didi being a peppy and lovable leader for the expedition.

We eventually get the answer to one of those as the action and puzzle bits are strung together with a story told through shadow people on exceedingly well lit walls. The story then falls down a hole of family dysfunction and mobsters and finding yourself, most of which is told through collectibles and moves in an engaging—if predictable—direction.

And then it ends. The ending feels as abrupt as if I were to en—

Contrast

Yeah, it felt a lot like that. It ends with a twist that we had no reason to suspect or even justify upon subsequent revisits, the worst qualities of a twist. It answers absolutely zero questions and opens an infinite number of cans of infinite worms.

The length contributes some problems to the gameplay as well. In the game, you play as Dawn, a silent but very capable woman with the ability to shift in and out of shadows. This allows her to run along other shadows as an almost alternate, 2D representation of the world.

The range of abilities that we gain is limited to picking up objects and dashing through smaller shadows, and that fuels intrigue for a solid hour or so of puzzle-solving. But it feels as though the game takes an extremely linear slant, a severe change from an opening bit when you have the choice to wander a carnival and go about your quest at your leisure.

Contrast

You’ll go a single direction, jump along a set path, and go on to the next part. Towards the end, there’s a platforming sequence that mirrors the rhythm of an earlier one where you watch a shadow performance on a wall as you try to clamber up their sloping arms and backs. As you hit each intermediary point, the scene progresses. It feels like a minor bump above a quick-time event.

This highlights two problems: 1) much of the solving process feels repetitive, almost brute forcing your way from going on direction, realizing you can’t go further, and then turning back or shifting into a shadow; and 2) the game is rather buggy. Nothing is ever broken, but no less than a dozen times per act I would find myself floating on geometry, assuming a strangely Vitruvian Man-esque pose. All you have to do is dash and you’ll break free, but it’s an odd and extremely consistent quirk.

And trying to climb up shadows that you can dynamically set yourself is a nightmare. Some slopes you think would be too steep, but you walk up them as easily as if you were covered in glue. Other times, you have to Skyrim bunny hop your way up a nearly flat expanse. It often feels like smashing your head against a locked door because oh wait it’s not a door it’s a wall someone forgot to put in a door.

Contrast

At a preview with the game back at PAX Prime, I solved a puzzle despite neglecting one of the key components of Dawn’s shadow-shifting abilities, and it was wonderful. With her full range of abilities, Contrast‘s puzzles felt a lot less inspired. There was such potential here: a deliciously jazzy world, a story told through shadows, and a mechanic that forces your mind to blend 2D and 3D perspectives.

And it never quite gets there. Contrast gathers all the parts and puts together a piece that is too simple and too short to fully explore its own framework. The challenge in platforming is figuring out what it and isn’t acceptable and never tests your dexterity and the puzzles only force you to determine which paths are open and which are closed. Neither Dawn nor Didi’s stories seem complete (Dawn, in particular, amounts to little more than a forklift). Contrast casts a fascinating, beautiful shadow, but its constituent parts never hit that same level.

+ The jazzy noir world is delectable and ethereal in a way that provokes a lot of intrinsic questions
+ Didi’s story has some great layers, even if the dovetail is somewhat predictable
+ Shifting between shadows forces your brain to track a fantastic mix of 2D and 3D mental models
– Much of the platforming feels frustrating, bordering on being what could be considered broken
– The puzzles become mind-numbingly linear, testing the bounds of what is a “puzzle”
– You get shortchanged on the questions/answers ratio and it is more bewildering than Dawn’s existence

Contrast

Final Score: 6 out of 10

Game Review: Contrast
Release: November 15, 2013
Genre: Third-person puzzle platformer
Developer: Compulsion Games
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PC
Players: single-player
MSRP: $14.99
Website: http://www.contrast-thegame.com/

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Hands-on with Contrast: Funny Lighting

Contrast

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t finish the new PAX demo for Contrast. I tried my damnedest, but I ran out of time, my 30-minute demo butting up against other appointments where Compulsion Games had their one private station set up behind a banner and some “please no one come back here” hopefulness. It’s mostly because I was being an idiot, but it also made me even more interested to play the final build of the game.

Contrast is a platformer about a little girl named Didi and a young woman named Dawn, who is the character you’ll play as. Dawn, however, isn’t quite what she seems. The two meet in a train station, but the truth is that Dawn is an imaginary friend concocted by Didi to help come to terms with some unfortunate business with her mother and father. Set in the 1920s, it’s a beautiful world full of Art Deco design aesthetics blended with otherworldly elements.

For instance, much of this gilded, Parisian-flavored, absurdly gorgeous world is broken. It floats in an ether with broken walkways and buildings bobbing in and out of reach with giant, impossible structures moving all around you. This often causes grandiose and shifting shadows to appear on the walls nearby, which is good because it allows Dawn to shift in and out of the contrasting figures, forming the meat of the game’s platforming and puzzles.

Contrast

And all the way up until the end of the demo, I thought that she was the only thing that could shift. The first half of the build is exactly what I’d played before (which Compulsion’s internal PR and community fellow Sam Abbott probably set a new speedrun record so I could get to the new stuff). The second half dropped me into a new chunk of the world that wasn’t discretely designed for a vertical slice demo.

Whereas last time was a very linear experience, this is an open world. A few short steps leads me back to the same carousel as before, still powered down and needing some luminaries to run. I had zero, so I had to set out and find a couple, the first of which was just a couple steps away. I began to wander, and found a lot of oddities that demanded answers.

There’s a giant carnival tent in the middle of the area with an even bigger pirate ship docked off to the side of the beach. (Oh yeah, there’s a beach, too.) Dilapidated sidewalks form shadow platforms that lead, ostensibly, to nowhere. I walked by a floating, glowing, spinning film reel and it activates a shadow puppet sequence of a man being offed, which could possibly be another platforming sequence. I grab my second luminary by activating a shadow man who slams a high striker that I could use to blast myself upwards to another ledge.

Contrast

How much, if any, of this was real? Is there any correspondence to the world that Didi lives in? What real time impact does this have on her life? I had so many questions for Abbot, but all I was met with was “we’ll leave that open to interpretation” and a promise that we’d find something in the real game. I begin to regard him with the same trust afforded a spy lousy with classified information. Hmmm…

My carousel requirements met but my curiosity left unslaked, I continued to wander about and found myself in the pirate ship. This first puzzle puts you at the bottom of this entertainment-only, non-seaworthy vessel with a goal to get to the second story. Opposite the entrance is a large crate and the ledge I have to get to while to the left is a large, blank wall and to the right is a light being filtered into four spidering shadows against the aforementioned wall. I pick up the box and begin to move it around. I try to shift with it against the shadows but to no avail. How am I supposed to use one box to ascend 20 feet?

After what must have been five or so minutes with Abbot watching on in silence accented by enigmatic murmurs, I place the box juuuuust right and manage to climb its shadow peak, jump, and air dash to the ledge. “Wow, I’ve never seen anyone solve it like that,” he said. I’ve played a lot of demos and I know when someone is bullshitting me for enhanced PR effect, but he sounded genuinely surprised. As far as I could tell, though, that was the only way to solve it. How would he have done it? “Well, I could tell you, but it kind of goes with the next puzzle.” Fine, keep your secrets. I don’t need them. (Just kidding, I totally do.)

Contrast

The next puzzle placed Didi and Dawn on the wrong side of three layered door grates, each one opened by a separate pressure-sensitive switch. A light against the ship’s steering wheel casts some very suspicious shadows against the far wall. The problem is the wheel and a switch is in a room closed off by a glass wall, and this is where Abbott offers his only substantial hint: this is something you would have already done before, so you can definitely get by the glass by yourself. Hearing that is enough to tell me I can walk through glass as a shadow but not as a corporeal Dawn. Simple.

Inside the bridge, I spin the wheel. When I let go, it spins back into place, allowing me to go outside and ride the rotating shadows upwards to the rafters. From here, I can see that a switch lies on a ledge too high to jump to, another just outside the bridge, and one inside by the wheel. I need three boxes, one of which is up here. From the crow’s nest, I can also see that the bridge has an opening at the top. Simple enough, I guessed: I’ll take the box, drop down on top of the room and use the box on the switch.

The problem, however, is when I drop, it turns out the hole isn’t actually a hole. It looks like one where I can see through it and light comes through, but in the digital representation of the world, there is an invisible, non-glass wall here. I turn to Abbot. “You can’t drop it through there?” he asks. Once again, this is genuine surprise. Am I the first person to play this demo?

Contrast

Obviously not, but I am the first person to play through it without picking up on the fact that I actually can shift with objects in my hands, something Abbott tips off to me as we wrap up the demo. (Apparently I wasn’t close enough to the wall when I tried this the first time.) This would have made the first puzzle trivial and the second puzzle at least comprehensible. Instead of feeling like a fool, however, I felt inspired.

A lot of games talk about offering up obstacles that can be overcome in multiple ways, some of which may be unexpected. And through my stupidly, artificially placed limitations, I was able to demonstrate just that. Realizing this made me infinitely more excited at the prospect of playing the final retail version of Contrast.

And as for that box? “We’ll make it work,” says Abbott. I’m sure you will, and I’m sure you’ll fill it with secrets. Look for Contrast to hit the PlayStation Network for PlayStation 4 and Steam for PC on November 14, 2013.

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Contrast: A Study In Art Darko

Contrast

Walking into the sizable Indie Megabooth at this year’s PAX East, I both knew what to expect and knew that what I expected would likely be subverted. I knew Transistor would drum up a lot of floor buzz and its line would be damn near unfathomable in length. I knew the Double Fine/Capybara Games booth would make a big splash and feature a beardless Tim Schafer. But I didn’t know that an indie-er game would steal my heart.

I passed by what felt like a dozen times, never really giving it much thought. From the looping trailer that played on the TV, it looked an awful lot like the 2010 Wii game Lost in Shadow. Everything I saw was just a shadow running across other shadows, leaping gaps and hugging walls. As the convention began to wind down for the second day, though, I happened to walk by one more time and, for some reason or another, finally decided to give it a chance.

And boy am I glad I did.

Contrast

Contrast is a game four years in the making from a tiny studio out of Montreal (they run slim on just seven team members) that is about light, shadows, and a little eight-year-old girl named Didi. Set in the 1920s at the height of the Jazz Age and the burgeoning of Art Deco, Didi lives with her mother but spends most of her time with her best friend Dawn.

Dawn, however, isn’t real. To Dawn, though, none of us are real either. Compared to her tiny progenitor, Dawn is strong, capable, and older, but she’s also imaginary and only sees people of the real world either in shadows or not at all (save for Didi). Whereas Didi is young and innocent and unsure of the world, Dawn is mature, lascivious, and knowing enough to be wary of what lies ahead. The contrast is as strong as the light and dark that the game trades in.

Shadows are something of a specialty for Dawn in that she can merge into nearby walls at will, at which point she is in this alternate state of being where she can walk on and boost through shadows. This is the key point at which Contrast diverges from Lost in Shadow and other similar games: Dawn can be controlled both from a conventional, three-dimensional perspective and from a flat, two-dimensional scheme. As a corporeal form (as much as you can get when you’re imaginary, anyways), you can move light sources, collect luminaries (a hybrid collectible and in-game resource), and explore this strange, broken world.

Contrast

I say broken because the world that you explore as Dawn is obviously not the same one that Didi lives in. After a brief tutorial of how to go in and out of shadows, we break out into a wide open 1920s strip of nightlife. Not content with simply going through the motions and immediately following objectives, I wander a bit (to the point where the PR person thinks I’m lost) and quickly stumble upon the end of the world. I mean the literal end; the street bends and sags and snaps off into a void.

“Did you see that? Not many people see that,” says level designer Joshua Mills. “We want the game to open for interpretation, so some things that people want explained may not be explained.” Beyond certain vagaries of Dawn’s world, this could extend to the Shel Silverstein ending to the road or to the intricacies of the shadow world or Didi’s growing relationship with a fictional reality.

The first real puzzle presented to the player in the demo is admittedly from several hours into the game, but it gives a chance to introduce luminaries. Luminaries are little floating balls of light that are scattered about the level in limited quantities and, possibly, in hard-to-reach locations. The function as both a collectible (“1 of 9 luminaries collected,” the game says) and as a resource. They power anything that produces light and light is often the first step for solving a puzzle, puzzles that include illuminating a jazz band, untangling a tangled hot air balloon, and powering up a carousel.

Contrast

The first step for Compulsion Games, though, seems to be creating a whole bunch of content. Even in these small bits of the game that I played, I was blown away by how much stuff is in the game. Everything is voiced and each setting seems to be wholly visually distinct from every other area. And all of it is absolutely drenched in the 1920s. Dawn with her old timey acrobat getup, shadows with fedoras, and buildings with gilded architecture. But why the 1920s?

“I think it’s just personal preference,” said Mills. “When I started with Compulsion, we have a drive with a bunch of movies on it, and it’s like you have to watch these if you want to work here.” One of them was Dark City, the 1998 neo-noir film about a fella with amnesia who finds himself accused of murder. “A lot of the levels and stuff I designed is directly inspired by that.” Dawn, though, in particular seems to draw from a different well.

“Alice,” said Mills matter-of-factly. “All that stuff that American McGee does.” It becomes readily apparent when you compare Dawn and Alice from Alice: Madness Returns side-by-side as compatriots of a dark, twisted fantasy. But it’s also more than that. “Some of the camera techniques really inspired the way we handle some things.”

Contrast

That, especially, comes to the forefront when after a puzzle involving fixing spotlights, you are treated to an extended jazz performance. A sultry singer, a smoky sax, and lingering shots of shadows skewed against the sharp Deco angles of the stage. The camera follows from the edges of the ostentatious proscenium to a door as a man and a woman dart out into the side stage, though they appear as only shadows to us. Didi calls out to one and gives chase as Dawn follows. Possibly an estranged father figure and possibly not even real. Mills explained it to me thusly: “if somebody has an imaginary friend, the parent will play along but they still don’t believe.”

There are obviously holes in Didi’s life that we will hopefully see filled. Dawn is “only there because [Didi] needs you to be there,” and she is presented as an acrobat because Didi sees things as a “performance piece,” her imaginary counterpart a warped version of a Cirque du Soleil performer. And it all serves to explore what the player wants to fill in the gaps with.

Contrast

“Any good story allows somebody to feed their own input into it and that’s the way we want to keep it,” Mills said. “Everyone on the team has their own take on it, but it really is open for people to fill it in themselves.” And that seems to be the resonant theme of Contrast. Light fills in the dark of the shadows, Didi fills in the holes of her life, and we fill in the gaps with our interpretation. If nothing else, Contrast seems poised to push some buttons, tug some heartstrings, and, most importantly, ask some interesting question.

Look for Contrast on Steam in the next two months.

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