Shardlight: a story of life, death, and the most deadly kinds of green things.
Hey there, Wadjet Eye; how have you been? It’s only been just under a year since our lives were graced with Technobabylon, easily one of the best games the point-and-click studio has ever produced. Now it’s time to go from cyberpunk to apoca-punk. Shardlight casts a toxic green tint over all, creating a compelling wasteland that has a lot of hope going for it, even as its characters contract the deadly Green Lung virus one after another. Shardlight has some issues, but is still another Wadjet Eye story worth experiencing.
Shardlight follows Amy Wellard, a mechanic living in a post-apocalyptic city run by an aristocratic ruling class. Having recently contracted Green Lung, the murderous virus that has plagued the entire population since the bombs fell 20 years prior, Wellard is fighting to live. The only chance at survival for a lower-class citizen with Green Lung is to take lottery jobs in exchange for tickets, all in the hope that their number will get called so they can get the vaccine that will buy them another month of life. While on a lottery job, Wellard gets a lot more than a lottery ticket; she gets a world of upheaval and attempted revolution bigger than herself, and bigger than any one person’s disease.
Wadjet Eye isn’t really the type of studio to try and reinvent the wheel. Thou shalt point, thou shalt click; you get the idea. That said, Shardlight can go toe to toe with the best of the studio’s previous titles in terms of level and puzzle design. Despite the seeming scarcity of the wasteland, combinations of items play a huge part in Shardlight. I found myself carrying more than a full bar of inventory space around with me with relative regularity, and often found that very certain combinations were the key to success. There are a couple very unique points where the game delves into the territory of code-breaking, requiring a great deal more than simple “use X on Y” logic to solve. It’s moments such as these that really make the game special on a mechanical level.
A slight downside to Shardlight‘s puzzle design comes in the nature of Amy as a solo protagonist. Let’s harken back to the studio’s cult classic Blackwell series for a moment. Throughout this series of supernatural investigation adventures, the player controlled two protagonists, between bookish writer Roseangela Blackwell and the much less corporeal Joey Malone. These games allowed for much broader and more complex missions to be made reasonable in magnitude, because the two characters could talk to each other at virtually any point, reconfirming objectives and aspects of the story thus far. There are a couple points in Shardlight where the lack of any ability to back through current story objectives can be a huge hindrance in story progression, should a player step away at the wrong time.
The story of Shardlight is tricky to pick apart. The parts it does well are an utter triumph, but these victories only accentuate the couple places where it falters. Luckily, the triumphs still manage to outweigh everything else, through sheer detail and care. Amy Wellard is a stellar protagonist, for the sheer reason that her goals and driving force are so simple; she wants to live. Her moments of introspection as she goes through the various stages of accepting the possibility of her death are some of the emotional high points of the whole game. Her identity is sold organically, as a member of her community, and even as a mechanic, given the option to notice various specific models of cars and trucks among the ruins she explores over the course of the game. Around her are other equally-compelling characters; Tiberius, the delusional and mighty governing figure of the Ministry of Medicine, and Danton, the revolution leader whose methods may not be much less brutal than those of the men already in charge. A few minor characters get forgotten at the end, though, in service of the greater rising action.
Now that we’ve discussed characters, we have to take another look at the actual story in which they take place. This, sadly, is where things get problematic. The characters of Shardlight, from the peasant class townsfolk to the aristocracy, and the death-worshiping cultists who operate on the edge of town, all feel like real people. They all sell the world in unity. The actual narrative of Amy Wellards’ story, though, is nowhere near so synchronized. The first half of Shardlight is telling a very distinct story; more importantly, an equally distinct type of story. About halfway through the game, a turning point is hit that sets Amy down a new path, completely refocusing the story from that point until its climax. Characters and story threads are virtually forgotten, and everything that had been important up to that point sort of just…goes away for a while. The disconnect is jarring, to say the least.
Here’s the one big takeaway from Shardlight‘s fractured story structure: despite everything, both halves of the tale it tells are, individually, really good. Both are peppered with a couple moments that feel just a bit too convenient for the game they’re taking place in, but ultimately, both halves of the story being told are perfectly sound. More than anything, it feels like the latter half of Shardlight is the real story, and perhaps the one the writer truly wanted to tell. The former half, although strong in its own right, ends up feeling a bit tacked on when looking at the thing as a a whole. In a similar folly, the game has multiple possible endings, comprising of two that feel blatantly like “the wrong choice,” and one that feels like “the right choice.” These choices bring back elements from the first half of the game, which begins to feel as though it could have been better treated as its own story.
On a lighter note, Ben Chandler continues to make me jealous of his artistic ability with each game he brings to visual life. It’s hard to make a nuclear wasteland visually compelling (looking at you, entire Fallout series), but Chandler hits the nail on the head, as if he draws using a pen that has a tiny hammer attached to the eraser end. The visual detail of Shardlight is a truly impressive feat, playing with shadows and neon green lights (from uranium shards that sparkle from the trees) to create a world that feels equal parts familiar and alien. The signature Wadjet Eye visual style is something I keep expecting myself to eventually grow tired of, but when the art just keeps getting better and more stylish, it’s hard to find fault.
Shardlight shines its irradiated lights as bright as it can in the toxic wasteland. At times, the game feels unfocused. At times, the game can lose players who leave and come back at the wrong time. At all times, though, the game is a human story of personal survival, to a degree most post-apocalyptic games can only hope for. It’s also worth mentioning here at the end that Shardlight was not a project led by Dave Gilbert, founder of the studio and creator of most of its most notable titles. Instead, the game was written entirely by Francisco Gonzalez, formerly of Grundislav Games, and creator of Wadjet Eye’s 2014 title A Golden Wake. We were not particularly kind to A Golden Wake, and one of my main complaints with it, as its reviewer, was the fact that its story simply didn’t feel worth telling. If three’s anything I can say Gonzalez has improved on as a writer, it’s this. Shardlight is a relieving surprise from Wadjet Eye’s newest acquisition, and leaves me feeling an unexpected amount of anticipation for whatever he creates next.
Final verdict: 3.5 / 5
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Wadjet Eye; Developer: Wadjet Eye; Players: 1; Released: March 8, 2016; Genre: Adventure; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on review code supplied by Wadjet Eye Games.