Diving into your shadow on the wall (and the occasional bottomless pit).
With online gaming on the PlayStation 4 now tied to a Playstation Plus membership, Sony has ensured that a lot more people will be enjoying the service, and while it does have that feature locked in, it still grants the same benefits as it has for PS3, Vita, and PSP owners. Some of those are the free games that come bundled with the service, including an initial offering of the indie title Contrast.
A mix of a 3D- and 2D-platformer puzzler, the lead character Dawn moves between the two by jumping into the shadows from the three-dimensional world and back. Other powers and abilities are revealed progressively, though not exactly acquired so much as you're told you have them, building towards a set of abilities that combine for some clever puzzles at the end of the game.
The story is the heart of Contrast, where you follow a young girl, Didi, as she attempts to fix her broken family in a 1920s-30s cinematic town (minus the pits that fall into nothingness). Her mother, a cabaret dancer and singer, and her father, a down-on-his-luck ex-con, and the illusionist who is somehow wrapped up in it, are the heart of the adventure. Didi directs you, as Dawn who seems to be an imaginary friend, in your tasks as you follow her and build pathways for her to cross gaps and circumvent obstacles.
The aforementioned nothingness pits are a definite reflection of the game's otherworldliness. As the player, you can see Dawn, and she can see Didi, but all the other characters appear only as their cast shadows, as if they exist in a different world somehow projected onto Dawn and Didi's. That's literally projected—in some puzzles you have to move a light source to shift where objects cast shadows to make platforms on the walls when you enter the shadow world. The reason for this otherworldliness is explained in collectible items and referenced as part of the story involving the illusionist, but the collectibles (which are often text documents) can't be zoomed in on, so reading them may mean walking up to your television and peering at them unless you have a colossal screen or eagle-eye vision.
In 3D space, Dawn's abilities and the metaphysical nature of the story reminded me a smidge of those elements (but only a smidge) from Dishonored and BioShock Infinite. However, the 3D platforming is also where Contrast begins to come apart. The 3D control is iffy, and it's especially easy to over-jump, or what some of my old friends called "pressing the fall off a cliff and die button." Additionally, getting stuck in an unexpected area or dropping boxes or other objects too close to a wall can trap the Dawn model in a neutral "T-Pose."
Contrast also had a few moments of slowdown, which was just bizarre on such new, accelerated hardware. Visually, it looks nice enough, though it fits more appropriately on last-gen consoles. It's possible that the next-gen processing was necessary for the shadow-casting effects? In any case, the game looks okay, and certainly good enough for the price. It's biggest problem is that gameplay is much rougher in the beginning, during the section where Didi is tracking down her Dad and trying for him and her mother to reconcile, where the puzzles feel half-baked or unclear in their objective.
The highlight is clearly upon the two sections that follow, where you have to work through puzzles to repair carnival rides and shows, and then climb up through and around a lighthouse to reach the light at the top. These excellent puzzles test your ingenuity and problem-solving skills, especially a section where you play the part of a shadow puppet in a fairy tale that feels like an homage to Limbo. The objectives here are always clear, but it can be a challenge trying to figure out how best to approach them. It feels like Compulsion Games figured out how the game needed to work as it was developed, but didn't go back and refine the initial puzzles as the later ones got stronger.
In spite of its flaws, being free with Playstation Plus is a good price; without Plus, Contrast is only $14.99, which is not bad for an indie title included at launch. Contrast is best when the story and the puzzles complement each other, like the platforming sections of the Lighthouse later in the game. Though short, Contrast can be replayed to get all the collectibles and is worth a look for the way the story and gameplay integrate, even if at times it's a little rough around the edges.