When The Last of Us 2 originally released back in the summer of 2020, the game saw critical praise for the way it handled accessibility. The game not only managed to cover best practices for accessibility across the board, but it also introduced several new and exciting accessibility settings rarely seen in big budget AAA video games before.
Perhaps most notably, the game introduced a feature called High Contrast Mode.
The mode, which allowed players to set unimportant game elements to greyscale, highlighting important gameplay and plot elements in easy to differentiate colours, was incredibly useful for blind and partially sighted players, as well as players with other disabilities such as ADHD.
While its use in PlayStation games is not yet standard across the board, it is becoming more commonly seen in first party titles over time.
While high contrast mode has been an incredibly useful addition to PlayStation home console titles since its introduction, I have argued for a while that it could potentially be even more useful for games released on handheld consoles.
Handhelds tend to feature both smaller screen sizes, and games that run at lower resolutions and levels of detail, where the ability to increase the visibility of important elements becomes even more vital for disabled gamers.
We actually posted a video back in October of 2021 on this very topic, which, fittingly, featured a lot of footage of Spider-Man PS5 running in High Contrast Mode.
I bring this all up because, while PlayStation have been bringing some of their more popular titles to Steam for PC players for a little while now, I’ve been lucky enough this past couple of weeks to have a review copy of the Steam port of Spider-Man, a port which runs on Valve’s Steam Deck handheld, and features support for High Contrast mode, allowing us to put top the test whether or not high contrast mode is indeed more useful for handheld games.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to be talking about Spider-Man on Steam Deck, and how the game’s implementation of High Contrast Mode benefits playing the game on a handheld.
We’re going to talk about some tweaks to high contrast mode that help make high contrast mode more useful, how it compares to other PlayStation titles’ implementation of High Contrast mode, and whether our previous video was right to suggest that High Contrast mode has particular benefits for handheld play.
Let’s start off by talking about the level of performance seen when playing Spider-Man on Steam Deck.
At the time of writing this video script, around a week before the embargo for this video review lifts, Spider-Man runs fairly comfortably on the Steam Deck at 30 FPS, with only occasional dips below that during smoke heavy cutscenes, when run at Low or Very Low preset settings, at the default 1280×800 handheld resolution, with the Steam Deck set to cap the game’s framerate at 30.
If you were to instead set the Steam Deck’s framerate cap to 60FPS with the Very Low graphics preset switched on you’ll typically see framerates of 45 to 60 FPS when in enclosed gameplay areas, with occasional dips down towards 30 FPS, but the framerate in open world environments will be a LOT more inconsistent, which is why I would generally suggest leaving that 30FPS cap on for consistency of performance, where the game will largely stay at its framerate cap with only minor occassional dips.
Now, considering I got the most stable gameplay experience playing at Very Low graphics settings, on a handheld screen with a fairly low resolution, I feel like Spider-Man on Steam Deck was a pretty good game to test out portable High Contrast Mode with.
Of note, playing in High Contrast Mode does not have any noticeable impact on the framerate of the game.
Just because the game is showing you less visual detail doesn’t mean it’s not still rendering it, ready for if you switch back to regular visuals at a moment’s notice.
The only exception to this seems to be scenes with high levels of reflections on screen, such as an early scene set in a museum, which runs notably better when you have high contrast mode turned on.
First Party PlayStation games that support High Contrast Mode on console have generally been a little inconsistent about how you turn high contrast visuals on, and off, during gameplay.
The Last of Us 2 for example allowed players to turn the setting on, and off, at any time by using a swipe of the controller’s touch pad.
Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart by comparison, at least at launch, required players to pause the game, and dig several menu settings deep to toggle the setting.
Spider-Man on Steam, thankfully, allows players to turn High Contrast Mode on, and off, during gameplay, with a tap of the Right D-Pad button.
This is not available as default, but you can in the accessibility menu toggle this function, so that you can switch in and out of High Contrast during gameplay.
Additionally, Sony Studios are inconsistent when it comes to the implementation of High Contrast Mode during cutscenes as well.
Where The Last of Us 2 allowed players to experience ALL cutscenes in High Contrast mode, Spider-Man on Steam turns High Contrast mode off automatically during certain cutscenes, much like Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart.
With all of these nitty gritty aspects out of the way, I want to step back a little, and simply talk about the experience of using High Contrast Mode on a handheld.
Put simply, it does make a really noticeable difference, one I truly believe is more impactful for a handheld game.
When playing Spider-Man at very low settings, on a small screen, certain elements in the far distance are difficult for me to pick out on occasion, even with fairly decent eyesight.
High Contrast Mode existing, as a toggle which can be switched on when needed, makes it a lot easier to pick out where collectables are in the distance, which enemies in a group are which enemy type, and whether an enemy is still active or has been defeated.
It helps to accommodate for any visual shortcomings required to get the game running at a decent framerate portably, and really helps to improve playability in tricky moments.
Don’t get me wrong, Spider-Man still looks pretty impressive on Steam Deck, even at Very Low settings, but having the knowledge that there was a quick one button toggle to colour code everything on screen was really important for making sure that the game was as natural a play experience for me as possible.
To repeat something I said back in October 2021, last time I discussed this topic, while I am delighted to see PlayStation implementing High Contrast Mode in more and more of their games over time, I really want to see someone who works for Sony step forward and make it explicitly clear that other devs are allowed to implement similar tech in their games, in particular because of the impact this could have on handheld gaming accessibility.
Sony is occasionally porting PlayStation games to PC, and that does mean they will likely be playable on handhelds like the Steam Deck, but in the absence of Sony having their own dedicated gaming handheld, I really want to see other developers creating portable games starting to step up and implement High Contrast modes in their own titles if they’re able.
High Contrast Mode is really beneficial for handheld gaming, and Spider-Man on Steam deck is a great first example of just why I am such an advocate for more handheld games supporting the technology.