Johnny Mac’s in trouble. The love of his life, club singer Kat Knight, has thrown him out after tiring of his failed wheeling and dealing, a string of botched schemes that have left him in hock to the mob. His latest grand design – and possibly the last, given the threats he gets from the two burly loan sharks who pay him frequent, chilling visits – is a funfair, the star attraction a renowned magician, The Great Vincenzo. But Johnny can’t catch a break. Vincenzo’s reluctant to put his name on the bill. His fairground attractions are on the fritz. And Kat won’t take him back unless he can prove his luck has changed.
Which is where Kat’s daughter, Didi, and Dawn, her not-so-imaginary friend – an exaggeratedly lanky figure with striped leggings and heavily blushed cheeks who is Contrast’s true protagonist – come in. Kat believes Dawn is merely an unfortunate by-product of a lonely child’s vivid imagination. She’s very real, however, albeit not of this world. Only Didi can see her, and Didi’s all we see, the game’s remaining cast of characters appearing only as silhouettes. Vignettes that flesh out this striking world and its story are acted out by huge shadows projected onto the sides of buildings. It’s a beautiful world, but a rather empty one. Sparse use of music – a Kat-sung torch song here, a carousel theme there, elsewhere little but silence save the odd murmur from a disgruntled fairground crowd – further reinforces the sense of loneliness. If anyone’s going to save Johnny and see Didi’s dysfunctional family reunited, it’s going to have to be Dawn.
Press her up against a wall and tap RT and she’ll shift into it, turning into a flat silhouette which can use shadows cast onto walls as platforms. It’s a smart concept that gives rise to some novel environmental puzzles, seeing you rotate, raise or lower objects, and move light sources around, in order to create a traversable umbral plane. You can take objects into the shade with you, too, leaving them there while you shift back out to the real world, moving them about by fiddling with beams of light. While the shifting mechanic naturally evokes Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, the readier comparison is Portal. When you first enter a room, you ignore the scenery and stare straight at the walls.
Sadly, it’s a comparison that falls flat in terms of execution. The more expansive puzzles don’t test the brain so much as the patience: you’ll think you’ve lined up the shadows perfectly but will have to make several to-and-fro trips, making minor adjustments before lankily trotting back to the wall and starting again. Development’s clearly been rushed, too, with frequent clipping issues and some rudimentary animations, while some puzzles appear to have been cut short. One prompt to find a way to open a door saw us spend several minutes running around a room looking for a beam of light or shadow platform we might have missed, before we walked up to the door in question and pressed a button. Open sesame.
That says much about the game’s puzzle design. The genre thrives on Eureka moments, but Contrast’s are few and far between, with the solution to most riddles involving trying everything you can think of until you stumble across something works. It may have a delightful art style, a vividly realised world and a story that builds to a sweet, satisfying conclusion, but it’s been hurried out the door to meet a hardware launch date and it shows. It’s a game of light and shade, sure, but there’s a little too much of the former seeping through the cracks.