Contrast preview: Shadow puppet theater

Contrast preview
Once upon a time there was a young girl with a troubled home life who took solace in the imaginary universe she dreamed up when she was alone. We've heard this story before, told in variant forms by Guillermo del Toro, Lewis Carroll and Zack Snyder, but Compulsion Studios puts a new twist on the tale with Contrast.

Didi, an inquisitive 9-year-old living with her mother in a 1920s noir world, manufactures a landscape of shadows populated by her lone, best friend, Dawn. Dawn is a young woman, more mature and powerful than Didi, and has the ability to shift between the real and shadow worlds. In Didi's reality, Dawn can climb shadows as if they were solid ground, allowing her to scale areas unreachable by flesh characters. She interacts with few real-world objects, and people, aside from Didi, are invisible to her -- only their silhouettes exist.

Contrast is a puzzle platformer, starring Dawn as she shifts between shade and density, helping Didi as she follows her mother through the dark city streets. The game is infused with jazz and tainted innocence: Didi's mom, the cabaret singer; her dad, absent; and a decrepit circus, just rolling into town.%Gallery-183660% This isn't the first time we've seen shadow-play in an indie game, but it may be the first time it's executed with this amount of polish and narrative support. When presented with a series of shadows, Dawn can fuse with the walls, becoming a shadow herself. In order to help Didi navigate the city, Dawn solves spatial puzzles not only by scaling the shadows, but by manipulating light sources and collecting "luminaries," glowing orbs that power certain mechanisms.

In one level, Didi and Dawn attempt to reach a hot-air balloon caught on a billboard outside of the worn-down circus. A carousel sits in the center of a courtyard, and Dawn can power it by collecting luminaries. When the carousel switches on, its shadows slide across the cylindrical walls, providing a rhythmic stream of horses for her to scale. This section in particular demonstrates the balanced nature of Contrast -- half puzzle, half platformer. Dawn has to figure out lighting that creates a coherent pathway to her goal, and then she has to navigate those shadows as they dance along the walls.

Dawn can shift into and out of shadows at will, provided the lighting is right, and she's able to phase through thin shadows, such as light poles, and remain in the wall-bound form. The mechanics are concise, with single-button transitions between the shadow and real worlds, and an intuitive camera that provides subtle directional guidance.

Some of the platforming is rough, Dawn's character model a few times catching on odd shapes in the shadow world, but so far the puzzles are solid. The only tripping there should be is in the player's own mind.

Contrast may be the relief -- with a gothic twist -- after the tease that was Shadow Physics, an indie game with a similar premise that failed to materialize. On this plane, at least. Contrast was Greenlit on Steam, coming to PC for $15 sometime in May.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.