Contrast review: Fleeting shapes in shadow (PS4)

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Contrast is a short, sweet game about a girl and a friend thriving in shadow. You play as Dawn, an elegant, exceptionally elongated woman visible only to Didi, a girl growing up in what appears to be a city from the 1920s. It's hard to say precisely, because the city you inhabit is a crooked, vaudevillian variant where the streets are always wet and a wrong turn terminates in a bottomless limbo. The shadows on the wall tell stories of the real world, projected into your dimension of shadow.

How the raven-haired, provocatively dressed Dawn came to inhabit this place is a story best left for play, where it unfurls in snippets of dialog, posters and notes that find their way to your world. It's an earnest and mostly successful attempt by Compulsion Studios to explain something that need not be explained – the game's noir-ish embellishment and jazzy heartbeat are enough to draw you in.

Didi's story is more personal, painting her as a loving daughter helping a bumbling dad, who makes one bad deal after another with unsavory types and suspicious magicians. As Didi wanders the streets, helping her father solve problems and reconnect with his songstress wife, we see that it's Dawn that makes the magic happen.

Contrast's puzzles are hinged on Dawn's thin figure, and how it becomes even thinner when she walks to a wall bathed in bright light. She can leap into a lit surface as if it were a curtain covering a stage, transforming into a slender shadow amongst every other object that blocks the light. Every shadow becomes a solid object from the 2D perspective, effortlessly supporting Dawn's weight. If you move a crate closer to a spotlight facing a wall, its shadow will grow larger in the distance, and perhaps provide Dawn with a new platform to climb in her briefly two-dimensional world.

The ability to move as a shadow, and the way in which objects scale in relation to the light, doesn't need much explanation. It's communicated well by the game's graphics, and it's something you've come to know from observation in reality. It's a clever premise, though it doesn't feel explored to satisfaction by the game's end.

It's a little disappointing that so much of Contrast's puzzles feel familiar, despite being cast in a different light, as it were. Jumping over gaps in the dark is a frequent trick, and later you gain the ability to dash through thin, vertical shadows obstructing your path. Traversal never grows beyond the basics, however, and Dawn's movements feel too staccato for what you expect to be a gentle, inky motion across walls. Walking over irregularly shaped objects also results in frequent jitter and displacement – less jazz hands and more jazz body.

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Some of those irregular shapes can be people, unknowing as you clamber across their silhouettes, listening and waiting for a raised hand or lowered hat to make a bridge to the next area. The game's stage-lit theatrics aren't just for looks, and the actors are well suited to the game's smoky atmosphere. Your presence there isn't acknowledged by Didi's parents, but you still feel like a participant in their scenes.

Dawn's march through the shadows of a second-rate circus stands out as a highlight of the show overall, even if it also succumbs to tired puzzle conventions like pinning floor switches beneath a box or two, or collecting floating orbs of light to progress. The game's technical instability continues to be a problem here too – not because it hurts the game's appearance, but rather your confidence in its mechanisms. Am I failing to recognize a solution to this puzzle, or is the game failing to recognize my solution? Did I shift this shadow in the wrong way, or is Dawn just having trouble running across a curved surface?

The adventure's warm outcome remains worth pursuing despite these issues, which seem exacerbated in a game that doesn't bother with too much filler. There is a certain purity to admire in Contrast, spotted throughout its dream-like world and theatrically contrived platforming, but it's just a little too concise and a little too thin, like a fleeting shadow.

This review is based on review code of Contrast, provided by Focus Home Interactive.

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