Review: Shardlight

There aren’t many companies that can claim the same amount of devotion to a single genre than Wadjet Eye Games can towards adventure games. Their latest entry, Shardlight, doesn’t stray too far from the design mindset they’ve carved within adventure gaming in the last decade – and while this more than often works to its benefit it sometimes also, much like its other recent adventure games that haven’t strayed too far from the beaten path, detracts from the overall experience.

Once you start the game you’re tossed unceremoniously into the post-apocalyptic world of Shardlight. Rather than a long scene explaining how things became what they are, you find yourself in the shoes of Amy Wellard, a mechanic who’s doing “lottery jobs” – highly demanding and dangerous tasks – in order to have a chance at winning the vaccine for Green Lung, a disease she’s just started showing the symptoms for, and is now on a job for the Ministry of Energy to fix an underground reactor that’s stopped working.

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While the world shown is undoubtedly grim, I enjoyed that instead of depicting a society that’s devolved into petty, internal strife, the people of Shardlight are, for the most part, survivors helping one another.

And if that seems nonchalant, it’s because for the most part it is. Most of what you piece together about the world and what led it to its current state, or at least the state of the city in which the game transpires, is obtained by observation, dialogue and reading. The inhabitants of this post-apocalyptic Oceanic town don’t dwell too much in the past, as they’ve got enough problems as it is, and seeing such a society represented as a continued attempt to survive and thrive rather than collapsed in pitiful wallowing was a breath of fresh air from a genre that too often overshoots by being too ambitious about its narrative. By keeping it simple I thought the world was more credible, as you’d expect that the people of a town that’s been in such a situation for over a decade to be more preoccupied with their daily issues – gas masks, failing crops and issue with their livestock – than matters of a more philosophical persuasion. A scene in particular at the beginning of the game had me smiling: you find a few kids playing with a skipping rope, and can ask to play with them – at which point you’re given a list of five or six rhymes that Amy can sing while jumping, all appropriate to the game’s setting.

Past the first part you’re given access to a limited amount of the game’s areas – four to start with, two of which are conjoined. By doing this the developers manage to remove an issue that often rears its ugly head in point and click adventure games: the excess of possibility. No one enjoys scouring dozens of different areas with different combinations of items, testing that stick they found an hour ago against every single object and trying multiple combinations just to get a smidgen of progress, something that’s also reflected in the modest amount of objects you’ll have at any given time in your inventory.

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By employing relatively creative usage of the items you find, Shardlight makes itself both harder and less straightforward than other adventure games, where you’re often just trying to connect the equally colored dots in otherwise simple puzzles.

That isn’t to say Shardlight manages to avoid all issues that point and click adventure games frequently have. While for the most part I felt that how to solve each puzzle was easily discovered after giving some thought and trial, those of the more indirect or esoteric nature presented a challenge that I personally found unwelcome. In a genre where solving puzzles revolves around you adding A with B and reaching a conclusion, when the bridge between the two points is either too fractured or too long the solution starts to become less a product of your intellect and more one of incessant trial and error. The first third of the game has a puzzle that I felt particularly obtuse, requiring you to discover just how to obtain an object that allows you to interact with a chalkboard – which then, to my surprise, actually held an interesting puzzle. Although this did not happen often, the few times it did during my playthrough managed to evoke all the reasons why I’m usually not fond of the point and click genre, getting stuck because of two or three instances where the solution to a puzzle wasn’t necessarily a product of logic, but a keen eye and repetition.

These setbacks didn’t overpower that which I found the best part of the game, however: the character interactions and the world’s design. It was evident from my first visit to the Market district that a lot of effort had been put into creating a believable world not only by the storytellers, but by the pixel artist and sound designer. The voice acting was, surprisingly, a high-point – while Wadjet Eye’s crew of voice actors seem mercurial in their past games, with performances of varying quality within each one, in Shardlight it was consistently good and believable. The portraits and pixel art are also gorgeous to look at, although the trappings of the old Adventure Game Studio engine continue to show – the game’s low resolution means it’ll look gradually worse the higher the resolution you play it at.[1]

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While there’s no doubt from the moment you meet them that the Aristocrats aren’t what you see superficially (despite being rather weird with their porcelain masks), the story of rebellion and conspiracy is well paced and delivered.

While I felt the puzzle design did falter a couple of times throughout my playthrough, for the most part I enjoyed the creative use of your tools and how most puzzles always had someone or something that would nudge you toward the solution if you weren’t figuring it out – unsurprisingly, the moments where this might’ve been needed the most it was absent, and then I had to rely on persistent trial and error. Despite the innovation in some puzzles and in how your inventory is more concise than the norm in adventure games, Shardlight still is very much your typical point and click adventure – to those who the genre might feel stale, Shardlight will give you little solace.

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What is an adventure game without its wit?

It took me a bit less than ten hours to complete the game, a couple of which were due to two puzzles that had me stumped for hours. The lack of player agency in the story that I felt throughout most of the game means there’s little to see of new when you do a second playthrough, and I felt satisfied with my single journey through the game and its story – which I won’t spoil to you, as it is definitely the sort of thing you’ll enjoy more once you see it for the first time. Within the point and click adventure genre there’s little to criticize of Shardlight and much to praise – from innovative puzzle design to superb voice acting and presentation – and that more than made it an adventure game I gladly played in a single sitting, curious to see how the mystery unfolds and never frustrated by its puzzles to the point of quitting (although once or twice that did almost happen).

1. Wadjet Eye has since stated that this is a conscious decision.

Shardlight was played on retail code provided by the publisher.

 

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One thought on “Review: Shardlight

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