Software & Web Development

Shardlight review: A pixelated post-apocalypse point-and-click pleasure

I’ve come to love/hate Wadjet Eye’s games over the years. Whether produced in-house or developed by others, the titles put out under the Wadjet Eye banner (Primordia, Blackwell, Gemini Rue, Technobabylon) are unerringly some of the best-written adventure games of the modern era...

...And also the most frustrating.

Shardlight is no different. Set in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged first by bombs, then by a mysterious disease known as “Green Lung,” Shardlight is as grim as point-and-clicks come. Within the first ten minutes a man asked me to kill him. Things got darker from there.

Soylent Green Lung is people

You play as Amy Wellard, recently infected with Green Lung. As a mechanic, she’s skilled enough to qualify for the government’s “Lottery Jobs” a.k.a. work so dangerous that only people with nothing to lose would want to volunteer. Doing these jobs earns workers a ticket for the titular lottery though, and the prize for winning? A Green Lung vaccine, which temporarily rids a person of symptoms for a period of about a month.

These vaccines are dutifully metered out by the ruling class, the Aristocrats, all of which have taken the names of Roman Emperors—though they dress like Revolutionary War-era soldiers. True to their name, they also live quite a bit better than the poor people in the muddy slums—or should I say the rebels in the muddy slums?

And then there’s the Reaper Cult, a sect based out of the ruins of an old church. You’re not allowed to enter the church until you’re ready to die, at which point the cult will let you commune with the Reaper—a top-hat wearing fellow with a fondness for ravens.

Look. Look at all that backstory. If there’s one thing I admire about Wadjet Eye, it’s their propensity for building interesting worlds atop well-worn foundations. Last year’s Technobabylon took a smattering of old cyberpunk ideas and turned them into a strong whodunnit. Shardlight takes the post-apocalypse—about as generic a video game setting as they come—and still manages to spin an interesting story.

It’s all in the small details. It’s in the way Amy’s obsessed with classic cars, or the way a massive statue of a woman towers over the dingy marketplace where she spends most of her time. It’s the jump-roping kids singing a nursery rhyme about the Reaper, or a train stuck out in the salt flats.

It’s a game that feels much larger than its actual confines and more inventive than its setting and straightforward plot would indicate. It helps that the dialogue is solid—not so much “The way people actually speak” as “The way people speak in books.” It’s snappy. Credit also goes to the voice actor (I think it’s Wadjet Eye mainstay Abe Goldfarb) for his wheezy and menacing portrayal of your lottery job employer Tiberius, aloof under his Classical-era wig and powdered gas mask.

But—and this is a sentiment that stretches back years now—it’s hard not to wish Wadjet Eye would upgrade its tech.

I actually have nothing against Shardlight’s art in theory. The studio is extraordinarily talented at reproducing a grungy sort of pixelism, an early-to-mid-90s Gabriel Knight-esque style with a lot of retro appeal. Shardlight makes the most of it, breaking up its browned world with splashes of toxic greens and reds. It’s weirdly beautiful.

Wadjet Eye built its reputation on the back of Adventure Game Studio (AGS), though—an engine suited for...well, basically the types of games Wadjet Eye makes. Small-to-medium-sized adventure games with a lo-fi aesthetic. So far, so good.

The problem: Wadjet Eye is bumping up against the limitations of AGS, and this becomes clearer with each new release. The art gets better, the voicework gets better, but the games are still stuck with clumsy interfaces and awkward “action sequences” (thankfully few of them in Shardlight) and a dialogue system that seems not entirely up to the task of handling the complexity of Wadjet Eye’s stories.

And this is before we even get into the problems with AGS as a platform. There's no resolution options, meaning the game runs at a baffling 1280x800 with some sweet black bars on the side. There's also no way to show all hotspots on a screen and avoid the need for pixel-scouring.

This last item is particularly galling because it’s the source of most frustrations in Shardlight. The art and puzzles are both superb at walking you through puzzles intuitively, for the most part. Occasionally you’re going to miss an object, however, and you’ll have no recourse but to walk through each available screen and mouse over anything that looks even remotely important.

Maybe Wadjet Eye considers this part of the genre’s retro appeal, but personally I’m not a fan—and I’ve only become more spoiled in the past few years, given that Wadjet Eye’s closest competitors in this space (Nordic and Daedalic) always give you the option of revealing hot spots. The puzzles are the game. Not the pixel-hunting.

Again, I have a love/hate relationship with Wadjet Eye. Their games are great, but also difficult to broadly recommend given how many modern genre conveniences they (willingly or unwillingly) eschew.

Bottom line

Shardlight is pretty damned decent though. The story’s a bit more straightforward than some other Wadjet Eye games, it ends a bit too abruptly, and a few of the secondary characters needed fleshing out, but all-in-all it makes for an engaging six or seven hours in a world with some great ideas—a bit like Dead Synchronicity, except with an ending. Very grim. Very adult.

I just wish Wadjet Eye’s tech matched its talents.

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