I previewed Shardlight not too long ago, and I moved onto the full version of the game not long after the preview went to press. The preview build ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, and I was quite excited to see how the story played out and continue onward with my adventure in a city devastated by bombs, disease, and an apathetic government.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CyEusvEpjw
Shardlight (developed and published by Wadjet Eye Games) is a classic point & click adventure in every sense of the word. Wadjet Eye Games has a long history of making this style of game, and from what I've heard they're one a handful of companies who consistently put out great point & click adventures.
I feel it necessary to provide a caveat for my review. Shardlight is the first point & click game that I've played to any serious degree (much less finished). I dabbled in the classics such as King's Quest many years ago but I was never afforded the opportunity to truly sink my teeth into this type of game until now. I may have missed things that would be obvious to a longtime fan of the genre, and I may say things that would seem insensible to those same fans. That said, I believe that a wholly fresh perspective can provide valuable insight just as an experienced eye can, and I will be approaching my review from this perspective.
Shardlight is set in a post-cataclysmic future. I use the term "post-cataclysmic" as the developer Francisco Gonzalez made some salient points about the setting in the interview I did with him. Namely, we've no idea of the fate of civilization outside of this one city where the story takes place. This city is barely holding itself together regardless of how you would name the tragedy that has befallen it.
Bombs were dropped, the city was heavily damaged, and a plague called Green Lung eventually crept its way into the populace. This plague looms over the whole of the game world as a frightening spectre for there is no cure - there is only a vaccine that can abate the symptoms with monthly doses.
The Green Lung Vaccine is readily available to the ruling government known as the Aristocracy as well as the wealthy patrons who support them. The majority of the populace does not have this luxury, and Green Lung remains an ever-present threat for anyone who doesn't have the fortune to have a government job or to have been born into a wealthy family.
Enter our main character, Amy Wellard. The game opens with Amy on a Lottery job. Successful completion of the task set before her will earn her a ticket in a weekly vaccine lottery. The winner receives a single dose of the vaccine. Lottery jobs are often dangerous either due to the environmental hazards of a collapsing city or the nature of the job itself.
Puzzles go hand-in-hand with most point & click games and Shardlight is no different. Completing the lottery job in the earliest part of the game requires that you work out multiple small puzzles to collect several items. These items facilitate the revelation of information needed to complete the task at hand.
A meme in the point & click adventure community is "Moon Logic Puzzles", a challenge that is difficult to understand and may require resorting to a walkthrough. Shardlight was largely free of this particular trope, although it did occasionally stray into this territory. Fripp Square in particular mystified me for quite some time, and I only managed to get past it once I had tried a series of items on a particular NPC and realized how one would affect the outcome of that puzzle.
My mishap in Fripp Square had taken place at around two hours into the game and it revealed what I feel is a weakness of Shardlight. As far as I can tell there is no quest log, notebook, or anything of the sort that helps you track what you are supposed to be doing currently. On the one hand, I have the understanding that Shardlight is intended to be very much in the vein of the classics of the genre and they too rarely afforded the player such a convenience. On the other hand, I spent at least half an hour moving between different locations and repeating conversations trying to work out who knew what and what my next move ought to be. This can be solved by taking notes yourself, but this is really the sort of thing that could have and should have been available for the player to some degree.
Shardlight similarly harkens to the past with a resolution of 320 x 200. I had first wondered if this was a technical limitation of the Adventure Game Studio software that was used to create the game. However, the site's wiki states that the resolution can go up to 800 x 600. An inquiry to Wadjet Eye Games' PR left me with the explanation that it was for an "old school feel", and the talent of the game's pixel artists leads me to safely say that it was a deliberate choice on their part.
The background art and character animations were expertly crafted by Ben Chandler. I've seen pixel art run the gamut of quality and what we see in Shardlight is without a doubt some of the best I've seen. The character portraits (for dialogue) and certain photographs were similarly well done by Ivan Ulyanov. Both Mr. Chandler and Mr. Ulyanov displayed an excellent command of working within the limitations of such a comparatively tiny resolution by modern standards.
The small resolution & art aesthetic stay true to the forebears of the point & click genre, but the music in Shardlight has stayed away from the trappings of chiptune or midi music. (It would not have negatively impacted the score; I am just not terribly fond of the style most of the time.) Instead we are treated to haunting melodies composed by Nathaniel Chambers. The guitar tracks in particular fondly evoked the memory of Diablo II for me personally. While Shardlight is quite clearly in a different setting, the music still managed to evoke the feel of the late 90s and early 2000s RPG scene. It didn't feel dated, and it simply evoked the feeling of the games of that time. As for the rest of sounds (also handled by Mr. Chambers), I've no commentary on them other than I found them quite serviceable whether it was the trodding of boots or the clashing of swords.
The game's dialogue is fully voice-acted and of superb quality. Of particular note is the work of Shelly Shenoy who voices the protagonist. You spend the vast majority of the game with her and she does not disappoint. A delightful side conversation has her singing simple rhymes in varying styles and showcases her range as a voice actor.
Normally I wouldn't make much mention of a game's user interface unless it had done something particularly outstanding or interesting. Point & click games are a genre where the UI can truly make or break the entire experience. Francisco Gonzalez expressly stated that he intended to avoid the menu clutter of some titles of the genre, and the minimalistic UI of Shardlight serves the game well.
Everything in Shardlight is done with the mouse. It is at this point that I'll admit I eventually found myself stuck and asked to be given a walkthrough. I was completely and totally lost at a certain point in the game, and it is because I missed a tiny (but important) poster in a series of three rooms. Francisco Gonzalez stated in our interview that he felt a game that requires a highlighting option for clickable objects failed in its design. I rarely had any problems, but this one incident stalled me enough that I had resorted to clicking around randomly in a futile attempt to find a clue to move forward. Design philosophies aside, I feel a feature that highlights clickable objects would have saved me in a situation where I was well and truly lost. I think the game is a bit worse off for not having it.
Another issue I had encountered was that saves could be deleted at a single click of the delete button. It's admittedly a minor problem, but I feel the lack of a confirmation dialogue for file deletion is a flaw that shouldn't be present in any modern piece of software.
The setting of Shardlight as a whole is something I found rather pleasant indeed. Although the game takes place many decades in the future, the attire and theme of the Aristocracy makes for an interesting juxtaposition in light of the post-cataclysmic environment. A similar thematic (and practical) divide exists in the use of technology. The wealthier folk have access to electricity, voice-controller computers, and comfortable living conditions. The poorer classes have no such luxuries, and the two different sorts of areas are only united in the ever-present shards of uranium glass that is used as an artificial light source.
I've been quite careful to not reveal too much in the way of details about Shardlight's story. I feel foreknowledge of the game's events will likely hamper your ability to enjoy it. The puzzles, more importantly, didn't appear to have any alternate solutions other than the ones presented. As such, I feel Shardlight won't have much in the way of replay value save for some delightful (and comprehensive!) commentary set in four separate tracks that you can access at any time.
Still, I can immensely enjoy an experience that wouldn't be the same after you know the ending. I would compare it in a sense to movies such as Fight Club or The Usual Suspects in that you won't ever be able to enjoy it as much as you did the first time through. That is not a flaw of the game to my mind, but if you're expecting multiple branching story paths or alternate ways to work out puzzles, I would have to say that Shardlight would not serve you well in that respect.
I spent approximately eight hours with Shardlight from start to finish. I feel I must qualify how I spent this time, as I much preferred to read rather than hear the spoken lines purely because of my habitual impatience when it comes to consuming media. A practiced point & click veteran would likely complete the puzzles much faster than I did, but someone also may take the time to listen to every bit of spoken dialogue which I certainly did not. The voice acting is lovely, and if it suits you to wait for the lines to be spoken I feel you would get a few more hours out of the game than I had.
I think I was quite fortunate to have chosen this game for my first proper entry into the point & click genre, and if you've never tried one yourself I think Shardlight would make for an excellent introduction. Veterans will also find a lot to love in this title. I now find myself staring longingly at GOG's point & click offerings and counting down until the next sale. I feel like I've missed out on something by never having played a point & click before and I'm quite glad that the legacy of PC architecture means that I can visit some of the classics which I was never able to play in my youth.
Shardlight was previewed on a Windows PC on Steam with a copy provided by the developer.
What's your favorite point & click game? Do you feel the various action buttons are a convention that the genre has since grown out of, or do you feel that a minimalistic UI like the one in Shardlight is missing something? Let us know in the comments below!
Although it has some minor flaws, Shardlight nevertheless stands out as an excellent point & click adventure that pays homage to its predecessors.