“The world ended the day the bombs fell.” Right from the start of their newest offering Shardlight, Wadjet Eye games warn that the story about to be told is a grim one. Following up from the noir cyberpunk masterpiece that was last year’s Technobabylon, the studio is once again exploring a somewhat familiar fictional setting: a post-apocalyptic society destroyed by nuclear war. I praised Technobabylon for being more than its genre, but did Shardlight carve its own niche in the crowded world of apocalyptic fiction? Well, sort of.
As is often the case, this world is one in which disease is rampant, political and social power is held by the wealthy few and resources are scarce. Townspeople attempt to make a meagre living by trading either goods or labor for basic living supplies, and going without food for several days isn’t an uncommon occurrence, especially for protagonist Amy Wellard. She is one of many citizens forced to perform ‘lottery jobs’ to earn an elusive ticket in the draw to win what cannot be bought by someone of her status – a vaccine for ‘Green Lung’, the disease that has claimed the lives of many of her friends and family. When Amy is introduced, she’s using her skills as a mechanic to fix a reactor on behalf of the Ministry of Energy, but what should have been a straightforward lottery job quickly turns into a horrible situation, one which leaves Amy vowing to find a cure for this disease once and for all.
This search for a cure isn’t all that Amy is swept up in, but to say any more would ruin what is a relatively compelling story. The world itself is not unique but is well formed, and the neon uranium shards that light the city provide a constant reminder of its explosive demise. They’re also cleverly used to highlight some of the differences between the destitute, downtrodden areas of the city and the lavish homes of the aristocracy, with the rich and lucky possessing shard chandeliers that drip with opulence. In some ways, the characters themselves do a lesser job of conveying their own state than their locations do. Unfortunately, that was at least partly due to the fact that the characters seemed to exist only to fit neatly into well-known roles within this dystopic society. The characterization wasn’t bad by any means, but it also didn’t feel deep enough to make any real impression, which was a disappointment. Like many aspects of the game, it was adequate.
In some ways, the use of familiar devices did work to game’s advantage. The clear inspiration from George Orwell’s 1984 made for some clever puzzles and interesting plot devices, and the inclusion of a devoted religious cult neatly added and tied together some of the game’s stronger narrative elements. Shardlight is a distinctly adult game, with many of the themes it explored somehow managing to disturb me despite being themes I’d encountered before. The world is sinister – openly so. Bodies are scattered through areas, children’s nursery rhymes are bleak and violence is rife. I lost count of the amount of severed limbs I saw, and I know I’m weak, but parts of the game were genuinely scary. But, none of that hit me as hard as some of the decisions the game forced me to make. Sometimes, you really do have to do what it takes to survive, and the game poses some important questions about delicate political systems and just how far one person will go to achieve their goal – often in the same breath. I’m not sure that Shardlight’s story will leave a lasting impression, but I am sure that even though I played through multiple endings, I’m still thinking about which decision might have been the right one. Every action has real consequences, and sometimes there really is no perfect solution, and I was genuinely surprised and impressed that this game made me think about that.
All in all, Shardlight is still a product of Wadjet Eye’s genius. They are a studio dedicated to providing true point-and-click adventures, and with that comes polish. However, with that also comes a loyalty to the graphics of old and those graphics then come with frustration as you try to work out which parts of the environments you can interact with and which you can’t. Somehow, the game is both polished and clunky, well-characterised and a little shallow, and intriguing but overly familiar. It’s a solid offering, but not Wadjet Eye’s best.
“Still a solid example of its genre and a highly enjoyable experience. Games rated a 7 undoubtedly have their fair share of issues and criticisms, but still come with a stamp of approval.”
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Shardlight for PC.