Contrast, and Why There Is Nothing Wrong With Short Games
As far as I was concerned, the PS4 launched with two titles, Knack and Contrast. I'm not a huge first-person shooter fan, so Killzone didn't really appeal to me. Nor did the latest entries in the various sports franchises. After that, you were more properly left with upgraded PS3 titles. In short, Knack and Contrast were the launch titles that were obviously designed to show off the new system to new audiences.
And of the two, Contrast is clearly the better one even though you can realistically beat it in under ten hours.
By and large, I don't think that we should give Sony and Microsoft a hard time about the lack of good launch titles. Only Nintendo (And possibly Sega when they were still in the console game) could honestly be said to sport A-list launch titles because their strongest products are internally generated. When you have series like Mario and Zelda to draw from while you're building the new console, you have a ready-made bestseller to count on.
Playstation and XBox don't have that advantage, so the result is most people making their top selling titles don't have any idea what they'll be working with.
Knack was developed by Sony, which is apparent because playing the game is distinguishable from titles like God of War and Crash Bandicoot only by the backdrops. Not even that in some cases.
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The storyline isn't overly compelling, with the supporting cast rarely rising above stereotypes and Knack himself almost completely devoid of the personal magnetism that gave Kratos his appeal. Though the graphics made you feel like you were in a Pixar film, each enemy is identical to it's counterparts with no attempt to add variation between models. On top of that, Knack's evolving abilities remain constantly situational, with exceptionally temporary and linear use.
None of this would have been much of a problem if the game was approximately half as long.
In video game world, longer is always better because gamers weigh in the cost versus the time spent playing it. However, it's becoming more and more apparent that quantity is being valued over quality. Games use tons of tricks to pad their play length. Nintendo is fond of making people play mirror worlds, or the same worlds with new characters to achieve perfect scores. Other games will make you walk back out of a dungeon you've just ran through rather than allowing for some kind of warp or alternate exit.
In Knack's case Sony really did try to avoid such things, but the result was a storyline that dragged on long after it was interesting. It was The Hobbit of games; long enough for you to notice major flaws that otherwise you would have barely given a passing glance to.
Meanwhile, there was Contrast. Short, lovely Contrast.
It's an inventive puzzler involving a young girl who uses a shadow doppelganger to explore a bizarre, nighttime version of early 20th century Paris. As Dawn, you move in and out of silhouettes through a beautifully rendered dreamscape as well as a Hollywood-level plot involving mysterious disappearances, gangsters, jazz, and family crises.
Now, Contrast has its flaws, too. For instance, it's occasionally a glitch-ridden nightmare. If there's anyone who didn't have to restart the game at the lighthouse at least once then I haven't talked to them. Carrying and dropping boxes with Dawn shows that the collision vectors were never completely worked out, and many times results in a bizarre moment where she stands with her arms out while a box slowly drifts to the ground unless you dash out of it. It's a really, really rough product when put against the polish of Knack.
Aside from the occasional grumble, though. You never even really notice those moments. That's because Contrast can be beaten in roughly eight to ten hours, and every single one of those hours is full with story and directed beauty.
For instance, it turns its cut scenes (Done by playing memories of past events as shadows on the wall) into puzzles themselves as you navigate the moving silhouettes of Didi's parents to reach inaccessible heights. There are homages to classic silent films like Nosferatu for film geeks to gawk at. There's even a Tardis for those who want to go exploring to look for it.
The best part, though, might be what's not created at all. Leave the beaten path too far in the game and you'll discover that "Paris" is actually a dream-like construct floating above and below a starlit void. The world you play in is not fully real. This is never completely explained, just as many of the peripheral mysteries remain just that. Background information on much of the plot is viewed through found documents, some of which are hidden and some of which are obvious.
As with the first Bioshock, these small bits of life in the fictional world get more story and warmth across than any amount of voice acting or extended CGI sequences. They speak to the core of gaming, that of exploration, finding, and beating. Where games succeed best is where they manage to fill their hours with as much of that as possible.
I'm all for a huge world. Give me 200 free hours and a copy of Xenoblade and I'm happy as a clam. The thing that a game of that scale has in common with Contrast is that it never confuses hours played with hours where the player had a good time. Portal 2 is one of the best games of all time and it can be beaten in just over an hour. Nin no Kuni was also brilliant, and 100+ hours won't unlock it's secrets. Originally I complained about PS4 incentivizing joining Playstation Plus by making indie games like Contrast free to download. Now I realize that if paying $10 a month will keep me just as entertained if not more as throwing down $50 on something like Knack then it's worth the buy.
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