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Contrast / 6th of August 2014

Contrast, the debut title from the eight man Canadian developer, Compulsion Games, was-rather ambitiously-released simultaneously on four platforms at the tail end of last year, before finally making its way to the Xbox One in June, thanks to the ID@Xbox program. Touted as a mix of Braid and Bioshock, the game met with general indifference from critics who slandered it for feeling rushed, and for being both frustrating and, perhaps worst of all, glitchy. With this new version seeing the light of day seven months after the original release date, has the Xbox One version managed to smooth out the rough edges of this intriguing platform puzzler? Or should it have simply remained hidden among the shadows?

In Contrast, players control the character of Dawn, a gifted companion to a young girl, Didi, as she follows the misadventures of her estranged father, Johnny-a man making attempts to reunite his family, and put right the wrongs of his past. The trouble is though, he’s putting everything that he has on the line to do so, including his life, as he makes dodgy dealings with tough gangsters in order to fund his latest money making scheme-a circus headlined by Didi’s biological father, The Incredible Vincenzo, an illusionist of the highest calibre. Though naturally, very little actually goes according to plan, and it is up to the player to help speed things along towards a happy ending for this rather unorthodox family.

Features that the game has received praise for are its setting and art style, with the city bearing something of a semblance to Paris of the swinging thirties, whilst its inhabitants feature a healthy dose of Henry Selick inspired character design. The character of Didi reminded me greatly of Selick’s stop motion heroine, Coraline (with more than a hint of of Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite), though all of the characters bear the hallmarks of the director’s influence with an overly exaggerated slenderness present in all of their bodies. The world around them is full of art deco touches, akin to Irrational’s Bioshock, but more grounded-though only just. There are bottomless voids that bring instant death to wayward jumps, and tall, crooked structures that reach out towards the pitch black night sky above. Contrast has clearly had a lot of love put into it, though for all of its artistic triumphs, the world still feels too detached, and completely devoid of life, which is particularly disappointing.

Contrast plays out as a platform-puzzle game, built around the developer’s concept of a world of light and shadow that allows them to create an interesting play on the Paper Mario system of switching between 2D and 3D planes in order to progress. In Contrast though, this is achieved by positioning Dawn next to a wall with a light source shining onto it and switching into her shadow form to move across a 2D area where she can use other shadows to act as platforms to help her navigate the level. As one might expect, the bulk of the game’s puzzles are based around this mechanic, and whilst the majority of these can be tackled without issue, the game is certainly not without its flaws.

There are times when players will genuinely struggle for answers to puzzles because no guidance is given whatsoever, players are simply required to pick up the skills that they need to pass these challenges, and they need to do it quickly. Though trials are often rudimentary affairs, primarily placing boxes on top of switches, these challenges often spiral in difficulty due to some woefully inaccurate controls. Likewise, platforming sections requiring precision jumping and mid-air dashing can often be frustrating due to Dawn’s overly sensitive movement that, more often than not, sees her fly through a narrow shadow barrier before her momentum carries her past the platform that she was intended to land on. Additionally, it seems far too easy for Dawn to be forced back into the “real world” during these puzzles as she navigates shadow filled areas, this being potentially the most frustrating aspect of the game, particularly when it can often lead to death, though this is softened somewhat by Compulsion’s rather generous checkpoint placement.

The Xbox One version of the game features all of the bug fixes released over the previous seven months, along with framerate improvements, as well as updated shadow physics and level streaming. Positive aspects carried over from the earlier releases including some top notch voice acting from the full cast and a laid back, jazzy soundtrack to almost perfectly compliment the art deco aesthetic of Contrast’s world. Kudos must also go out to Compulsion Games for giving us a gaming experience fronted by two strong female leads, this obviously works within the confines of its narrative, but when is all said and done, this is a fairly unique feature to have in a male dominated industry, and I for one am delighted to see the studio make such a bold move. The balance between the characters makes for an endearing relationship, as the younger of the two, Didi, looks amiably up to her older companion, and fills in the void (Dawn remains silent throughout) with her utterly sincere dialogue and observations about the world, and the crumbling relationship between her two parents that she is so determined to repair once and for all.

Contrast is both a game of light and shadow, and one of hits and misses. For all of its improvements, the game never feels as though it’s putting the Xbox One hardware to the test, it may well be highly stylised, but in effect it is very much a last-gen game, and it is still one that has its fair share of problems. Personally, I do feel as though it is still a fairly strong debut showing from the team at Compulsion, they are clearly a very capable group of developers and I do hope that they can get the opportunity to show exactly what they are capable of with their sophomore effort. Evidently, I am not alone in this, as for this year’s Canadian Video Game Awards, Contrast has been nominated for ten of its seventeen honours, this is an achievement that the team are obviously very proud of, and an indication of the artistic power that they hold within them. However, this is potential yet to be realised, and at present there are better games of similar ilk available on most platforms, including the brilliant, if grossly underrated, Max: The Curse of Brotherhood. Of course, for those chasing some elusive gamerpoints, Contrast is a very easy thousand points indeed, and whilst I am certainly not advocating that as a reason to influence any buying decision, I thought that it warranted a mention.

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