It ain't no Technobabylon but it's better than Primordia. If you know what I'm talking about, read on
Two simple questions. #1: Are you an adventure game fan? If the answer is “yes” then carry on. Question #2: Do you look forward to each new release from publisher WadjetEye Games? If the answer was “yes” to the first but “no” to the second you’re doing adventure games wrong. They’ve got the highest consistently great quality hit rate in their titles since LucasArts. So put down that Daedalic game, don’t even consider replaying Runaway, and pay attention to their latest title Shardlight.
Chris Capel has Green Lung, and no that's not a band.
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It’s an indeterminate amount of time in the future and society has lapsed into a Fallout-like apocalypse. A fatal disease called Green Lung affects most of the populace, and only the upper classes and ruling body the Aristocracy receive monthly vaccine treatments to stop the disease progressing. The lower classes can only take dangerous Lottery Jobs in the hope of receiving vaccine. Main character Amy Wellard is on one of these jobs when she encounters a dying man who’s part of the resistance against the Aristocracy, and from there she gets sucked in to a world of spying, rebellion, betrayal and death while desperately searching for a way to stop the disease that’s slowly killing her.
It’s very difficult to make a post-apocalyptic world feel original these days, but Shardlight just about manages it. The Aristocracy, guards and all, dress like French revolutionaries, with leader Tiberius wearing a cool porcelain mask that doubles as a gas mask. The glowing green shards that lend the game its title provide the main source of light and give a creepy feeling to the world, enhanced by the flocks of ravens that seem to be the only remaining animal around. The death-worshipping Cult of the Reaper only adds to the colour.
He's behind yoooou!
WadjetEye have created an interesting world for sure, but as with the best fiction it’s the characters that bring it to life. Tiberius is the most compelling of villains: one who thinks he’s doing the right thing, and the secrets he’s hiding just added one more reason for me to play Shardlight through to the end. Amy’s friends such as graffiti artist and runaway Denby are all well rounded and with their own wants, needs and problems. Revolutionary leader Danton is committed but understands Amy’s own needs.
And Amy? She’s an incredibly strong character. Other than friends she doesn’t have anyone close after the passing of her Dad and is staring death in the face, so she shouldn’t have anything left to live for. However she doesn’t give up, she keeps pressing on, and will do anything to survive and help her friends when they need it most. She’s a bit world-weary but not ready to give up yet. I hugely liked Amy, and a likeable protagonist is the first step to making a great adventure game. (You hear that Deponia?)
The marketplace, home to rapscallions of all sorts.
The writing is just as sharp, with some excellent believable dialogue despite the mad things going on and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of humour when required. The acting is pretty good, certainly for the studio’s budget, and while it can’t match the absurd professionalism of a Broken Age it’s still better than 90% of the adventure games out there. There are heartfelt moments in Shardlight and there are some truly horrifying moments too, and the actors (in particular Amy’s actor) all make you believe in the situation despite the low-res graphics.
Ah yes, might as well get it over with now: while it’s undoubtedly up to you I’m not a fan of the Adventure Game Studio early-90s graphics engine. I’m happy with 2D art but I’d like a crisper, higher resolution so I can appreciate the Shardlight world even more. More specifically, despite some occasional cool animations most of the animations such as walking are stiff and very AGS-standard. Furthermore with the low resolution it sometimes makes things hard to spot. Oh, and once again WadjetEye have hidden their graphics options in a separate program file you can only find by opening up the game’s install folder.
The Cult of the Reaper. Lovely guys.
So on to the meat of the gameplay, which are the puzzles. WadjetEye have their own particular style of puzzle, which has them as rooted in believability and common sense as possible. Can’t get into a display case? There’s a sporting goods store downstairs, grab a baseball bat and go to town. Don’t know what to do and Amy doesn’t either? Ask around, maybe even read a book or two. I really like this style, and I also like how useless items get discarded and locations Amy doesn’t need to visit anymore get taken off the map.
This makes Shardlight feel like a more streamlined adventure without being much less tougher… but the downside is that it can feel easier anyway. I’m an adventure gaming specialist and the only times I got stuck was when I’d overlooked something obvious. The game was no less satisfying for me as I still felt good whenever I solved the puzzles, but as a consequence I shot through the game in no time at all. Still, 6-8 hours for an amazing adventure that only costs £10.99/$14.99 is pretty damn reasonable in my book.
In many ways Shardlight is a typical WadjetEye adventure game - low-res graphics, common sense puzzle solutions, wildly imaginative, well written and hugely entertaining. The world is interesting and manages to stand out against the multitudes of post-apocalyptic landscapes in videogames. Amy Wellard is a sympathetic and interesting player character, Tiberius is a ruthless villain whose motivations you can actually understand, and the other characters all have their own believable wants and needs. The puzzles are satisfying and sensible, although dedicated adventurers will probably nip through them quickly. The early-90s low-res AGS engine is the only thing holding the game back really. I hugely enjoyed Shardlight and if you’re hankering for some old-school-looking post-apocalyptic puzzling entertainment I urge you to pick it up. Looks like WadjetEye are keeping up that winning streak.
TOP GAME MOMENT
I personally like the Cult of the Reaper, who initially seem insane nutjobs but actually turn out to be interesting people.
Sympathetic and interesting characters with well-written and acted dialogue.
Interesting world with unique ideas for the overused post-apocalypse setting.
Satisfying common-sense puzzles.
Over all too quickly, and the decades-old AGS engine is one of the few stumbling blocks.