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.