Review: Shardlight

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From publishing games like Primordia to developing its own titles like the Blackwell series, Wadjet Eye Games has cemented itself as one of the trusted brands keeping the traditional point-and-click adventure genre not just relevant, but thriving. Shardlight, internally developed and written by a team overseen by Wadjet Eye founder Dave Gilbert, only continues the studio’s run of retro-adventure excellence.

Post-apocalyptic games are a dime a dozen nowadays, and yes, this is yet another game that takes place in a very harsh and depressing world left devastated by the aftereffects of war. However, Shardlight‘s post-apocalyptic setting, familiar themes and all, has a distinct style and more grounded feel that sets it apart. Exactly twenty years since an event known as “Blast Day,” protagonist Amy Wellard, a young woman who has contracted Green Lung, the disease at the root of the game’s post-apocalyptic strife, has taken a lottery job in hopes of earning a dose of the government-controlled vaccine. The wealthy benefit from regular access to the vaccine, but the poor must take on dangerous jobs for the oligarchical Aristocrats in order to gain entry into a vaccine lottery. So in addition to the typical post-cataclysmic themes of hardship and survival, there is a very strong narrative undercurrent of class tension within the world’s social hierarchy.

On her lottery job to repair a broken down reactor, Amy meets a technician–the person previously sent to do the job she has undertaken–trapped and dying under a collapsed pile of rubble. An unexpected revelation during their encounter leads Amy into the middle of a conflict between the oppressive Aristocrats, led by Minister Tiberius, and an underground rebel resistance movement attempting to fight back against the government propaganda and neglect by the social elite.

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Shardlight tells a mature and at times quite dark and violent story, driven primarily by the game’s antagonist and protagonist and the strong voice-over performances of Shelly Shenoy as Amy Wellard and Abe Goldfarb as Tiberius, respectively. Amy is very much a likeable heroine that you can empathize with and root for, while Tiberius is a compelling villain with a calm and calculating demeanor mixed with an air of mystery, menace, and madness. Tiberius’s design is especially fascinating, with the hair and dress of a George Washington matched with a sort of porcelain doll mask affixed with gas mask respirators that hides his real face and identity. While not nearly as crazy-looking as Immortan Joe from Mad Max: Fury Road, he definitely has a weird and creepy charisma that draws you to his character.

At this point you might be wondering where the game gets its title. It all comes from the shards of uranium glass which serve as the sole form of artificial light for torches, lampposts, and, in the wealthier areas, chandeliers. The sun’s UV rays make the shards glow green with an eerie effervescence that stands out in contrast to the drab browns and grays of the desolate landscape and adds a distinct note to the overall atmosphere. Wadjet Eye sure knows how to create tremendous immersion with simple pixel art.

As well told and presented as the story is, don’t come in expecting a whole lot in terms of player agency. You are given the opportunity to read a few notes and books that provide some additional backstory, engage in conversations that aren’t necessary for progressing the story, and discover little optional actions that are linked to the game’s achievements (there are even quite a few fun Easter egg-style nods and references to other post-apocalyptic fiction), but none of it has any real impact. The only true moment of choice and consequence comes at the very end, where in the final confrontation you’re given three options to determine which of the three possible outcomes you get. Unfortunately, since these choices have no bearing on playing a particular way throughout the rest of the story, the endings feel just a tiny bit cheapened. After beating the game the first time, you can simply load up your last save file and play out the other endings in a matter of minutes.

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In terms of gameplay, Shardlight stays true to the traditions of old-school adventure games. There’s a lot of cursor pointing and clicking to navigate environments, examine hotspots, and make dialogue selections during conversations. Puzzles and world interaction operate on an item-based inventory system, and thankfully the object combinations make sense without crossing into some of the kooky logic that gets some adventure games into trouble. I also love the way Amy hangs on to certain items to use repeatedly, in multiple ways, throughout the game, in particular her trusty crossbow. It’s a small detail, but it makes interactions with the world feel more organic, like there are a set of rules that apply to not just one moment, but to others down the line. In addition to item usage, the game throws a few logic-type puzzles into the mix that require using multiple items and paying attention to clues left in notes. For example, laying a piece of paper over an engraving and rubbing a candle over it to reveal the writing, or studying a book on calligraphy to learn how to draw a certain symbol on a chalkboard. A few of the puzzles are more than capable of stumping even the most experienced of adventure game players.

For better or worse, depending on how pure you like your games of point and click, Shardlight sticks to a very rigid set of mechanics. Personally, I think the UI could benefit from some more modern touches that could be implemented without derailing the retro vibe, such as the ability to double-click on waypoints to quick travel between scene transitions instead of always having to watch Amy walk across the screen and complete the animation. A hotkey to highlight hotspots could help as well. Thankfully there is very little of the dreaded pixel hunting that can be a plague on old-school adventure games, but on a couple of occasions I did waste a lot of time tediously traveling back and forth between locations in search of a vaguely hidden inventory item that was needed to proceed. Getting stumped by a challenging puzzle is one thing, but getting stumped simply because a crucial item is difficult to see within the environment is something altogether more frustrating.

Good old fashioned adventure game storytelling is what you get with Shardlight. Interesting lead characters matched with effective use of pixel art, voice acting, and music sets the appropriate tone and ambiance to draw you into the game’s grounded and mature post-apocalyptic world. On top of the six to eight hour storyline, bonus content in the form of an in-depth developer commentary mode, as well as unlockable concept art and acting outtakes from the voice over recording sessions, adds meaningful value. If you like your point-and-click graphic adventures the way they were made back in the glory days of MS-DOS, Shardlight‘s not to be missed.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Grounded post-apocalyptic world with an engaging story to tell
+ Strong voice acting performances led by Shelly Shenoy and Abe Goldfarb
+ Smart puzzles that feel natural within the context and logic of the setting
+ Beautifully realized pixel art atmosphere

Cons:
– Limited player agency until the very end
– Some crusty UI elements feel a bit too old fashioned

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Wadjet Eye Games
Developer: Wadjet Eye Games
Release Date: 3/8/2016
Genre: Adventure
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: GOG, Steam, or Wadjet Eye Games store

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!