Wot I Think: Shardlight

The latest adventure from top producers Wadjet Eye, Shardlight [official site], is out today. When I played the first half or so earlier this year I was pretty taken with what was on offer. Does the post-apocalyptic tale of oligarchies, underground rebellions and deadly plagues manage to maintain momentum? Here’s wot I think:

It’s a rare and genuinely special thing when a post-millennial adventure game is unafraid to just tell you its story. I think that’s what makes Shardlight most special. But of course it would be of no use were it not within the structure of a well composed, well paced, smartly puzzled traditional point-n-click. Phew, it is.

Set years after the bombs have dropped, when a new generation of adults barely remember the times of plenty before, Shardlight’s setting is interesting within the hoary trope of post-apocalyptictown mainly by how destitute it isn’t. Times are very hard, the regular citizen has no access to electricity, and fresh food is hard to come by. But there are markets, businesses, a functioning society. And indeed there’s a new authority, the Aristocracy, a pastiche of the Elizabethan era of powdered wigs and whited faces, who live in decadence while the masses are dying in the streets of a disease called Green Lung.

You’re Amy Wellard, a mechanic who has contracted the disease. As such, she has taken on a “Lottery Job”, menial or dangerous tasks given out by the Aristocracy in order that citizens can earn lottery tickets for access to the limited stocks of vaccine. And as you attempt to fix a power supply in a dangerously crumbling sewer, you encounter a dying man who gives you a clue to a secret, underground rebellion.

From here on, Shardlight really delivers a masterclass in pacing an adventure game. At first there are few locations to visit, but each is densely packed with people to speak to, objects to find, and puzzles to solve. It then gradually expands outward, at just the right speed to ensure there’s always somewhere new to visit, without overwhelming or leaving you directionless. To a certain point. The game’s second half does then go on to make the classic slip-up of becoming so focused on telling its story that it becomes increasingly linear, decreasingly open, until you reach the point where there’s only one place to go at a time, one thing to be doing, as you head toward the dénouement.

The story manages to not offer anything stunningly original, while still being captivating. There are elements after finishing it (and seeing all three very different endings) that I would have liked to have seen fleshed out further, characters whose lives I’d like to have learned more about, and certain mysteries perhaps a little anticlimactically resolved. But it remains a full-length, always intriguing tale, with a broad mix of characters, and a player character who doesn’t let you down with stupidity, weary sarcasm or random cruelty. Crazy that this is a thing to celebrate, but in this genre, it’s a rare treat.

Shardlight is beautifully crafted, Ben Chandler’s ever-better animations and backgrounds doing wonders with a smattering of pixels. Locations are distinct, enormously detailed, and pleasing to explore. It’s also a remarkably grim setting, with surprisingly dark moments, which manages to be offset by some absolutely splendid voice acting. Shelly Shenoy’s Amy is faultless, and there are excellent turns by Felicia Hudson as the menacing leader of the rebels, Danton, and Abe Goldfarb as Aristocratic baddy, Tiberius. This is all boosted by a great script, some lovely moments of writing, that manages to be witty without being wacky, and severe without being morose.

There’s an awful lot of death in the game, to warn those who might be expecting something a little more light-hearted. This is mostly in the form of dead bodies draped on the streets, hanged corpses, and a lot of human suffering. But it’s handled well for the most part. There’s one particular scene of a really quite awful death that I found oddly callous, but mostly because it was out of tone with the game’s usual sensitivity. Otherwise it’s pleasingly adult, without being overt.

A rushed ending is really the game’s only let-down. A larger conspiracy, or more surprising reveal, might have given it a heftier punch. And it certainly needed a few more puzzles in the later stages, a bit more to do. But these are minor niggles in a really splendid adventure game of the sort we see too rarely. Grown up, well written, carefully paced, and genuinely interesting to explore.

Shardlight is available on GOG and Steam, or directly from Wadjet Eye.

From this site

23 Comments

  1. ChairmanYang says:

    On a spectrum of Wadjet Eye puzzle difficulty with the Blackwell games on the easy end, Resonance on the hard end, and Primordia somewhere in the middle, where does this game lie?

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    gritz says:

    But John, why do you hate Adventure Games so much?!

    (Just kidding- this game looks outstanding)

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    Marclev says:

    Wow, this sounds good. Day one purchase I think!

  4. preshrunk_cyberpunk says:

    Yea I’ve been eagerly awaiting this one since the first screenshot.

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    caff says:

    Another insta-buy Wadjet eye game then.

  6. pack.wolf says:

    Makes me wish I could enjoy point&clicks. Well, at least that way my backlog won’t get another entry. I’ll take solace in that.

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    Bluerps says:

    This looks so good!

  8. Tacroy says:

    I was so sad when the first time I loaded this page, there was no “RPS Recommended” badge on the screenshot? Looks like it’s in the right place now!

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    caff says:

    It’s a little bit cheaper on GOG.com folks. Go spread your love to GOG.com.

  10. Rumpelstiltskin says:

    “The story manages to not offer anything stunningly original, while still being captivating”

    This sounds like “not offering anything original” is some sort of an achievement, which many try but only few manage to pull off.

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    alison says:

    Gosh, those graphics are fab. Looking forward to this one. I’m still waiting for Wadjet Eye to trump Gemini Rue for me. I fear they killed it so fucking hard with that one that nothing else will ever measure up.

    • Buggery says:

      Out of interest, why did you like Gemini Rue so much? I’m a long time adventure fan and I found it to be pleasant enough but not exactly memorable. I finished the whole thing and to be honest I’m not entirely sure I can remember it at all. It’s really put me off playing the Blackwell games because I bought the whole lot, played the first 10 minutes of the first one and thought “nope, can’t be bothered.”

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        caff says:

        Gemini Rue is my favourite Wadjet Eye game because it has a fragmented plot on a par with some of the greatest sci-fi films. I love the dialogue and the feeling of desperate plight. Technobabylon is equally strong in this regard.

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        alison says:

        Honestly, i’m not entirely sure. I absolutely loved Gemini Rue, followed closely by stuff like A New Beginning, Dreamfall Chapters, and (most recently) The Silent Age. Meanwhile i found Technobabylon merely good and Resonance and Primordia only middling. I can’t really give any objective reason why i like one game over the other one.

        Many of these games have a grounding in “serious” sci-fi novels, insofar as the pacing is excellent and the story beats and twists fall just where they should. When there are character switches it is for a deliberate narrative purpose, and they have a literary impact the old classics like DOTT never really achieved. None of the plots are crazy original, but they all hit that Philip K Dick Award level of sci-fi that is very modern and readable without being esoteric or pretentious.

        Of the games i mentioned, Gemini Rue was the only one i didn’t consult a walkthrough to complete. In modern adventures i usually don’t consult walkthroughs due to impenetrable puzzles, but i do it because i don’t want to waste time idly clicking around when the game world becomes uninspiring and my Steam backlog beckons. In the modern era of adventures, a story that i can advance without a walkthrough but remains tense and exciting enough that i don’t feel like i’m just doing arbitrary fetch quests is the holy fucking grail, and Gemini Rue hit exactly that sweet spot for me. I probably played it 4-5 years ago now so there is a possibility it doesn’t hold up as well as i remember, but at the time i had really played nothing like it.

        Perhaps it is more something that appeals to traditional sci-fi fans than traditional adventure fans, though. To wit, i found games like Edna & Harvey and The Journey Down more enjoyable adventure games in the Lucas Arts tradition, but they are more about fun puzzles and silly setups than “serious” story and narrative. Gemini Rue made me respect adventure games as a storytelling medium that not only rivals novels but can exceed them to.

        • SteelPriest says:

          I agree, gemini rue is the best so far (not tried Technobabylon yet), but Primordia was also excellent. Resonance, less good i reckon. Less vibey anyway.

  12. Vorig says:

    And how long might it take an experienced AGS player to finish this gem?

  13. Unsheep says:

    Another RPS Recommends I can agree with, whats wrong with me?
    I started playing it last night. Pre-ordering the game was not a bad move, I have yet to be disappointed by a Wadjet game and this only cements that. As expected the focus is on the narration, visuals and puzzles, but they still manage to give you a sense of gamer freedom and choice.

  14. Melloj says:

    This puts me in mind of another game about Shardlight. One who’s kickstarter John recommended: Allum.

    When I finally got that game and started to get into it, I kept thinking “I wonder if John is playing this?”

    It was a shame because it was actually a well executed game, but oh my, the Jesus.

  15. Haxavier says:

    After spending a while digging around RPS’s Live Free Play Hard archives I found the original prototypes that were made for Shardlight. Made by the same guys too. Pretty neat to see it being picked up and expanded upon a few years after its debut!

    link to freeindiegam.es

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    Alpha1Dash1 says:

    Not to be picky, but what good would the vaccine be after catching the disease?

    • polecat says:

      One generally thinks of vaccines as preventative (prophylactic) ones but there are therapeutic examples which aim to keep diseases under control. That’s what they’re going for here, the vaccine keeps Green Lung in check but you need more to stop getting worse.

  17. polecat says:

    Just finished this. It is good, and I love that Wadjet Eye have really envigorated a genre I love, and do amazing work with a small team. I agree with John that it maintains or improves on Technobabylon standards in some important respects, but overall it didn’t engage me quite as much. Trouble with setting yourself high standards of course! I love the setting in both, they are well realised, and I would still recommend the game. I really hope they can build on what they’ve done so far with games of even more depth – and I agree a change of engine is overdue.