Review: Shardlight21 Mar 2017 0
Released 08 Mar 2017
I cannot recall ever having played a game with as bleak an opening as Shardlight. Within minutes you discover that Amy, the central character, has a potentially fatal disease. If that wasn’t bad enough, she is soon being pleaded with to perform a mercy killing by shooting a crossbow bolt through an unfortunate guy’s head. You soon realise that although the game is a traditional point-and-click adventure, it is an extremely different beast to the light-hearted Monkey Island.
Shardlight is set in a near future dystopian post-apocalyptic world, twenty years after World War III. When the bombs dropped, the sun became obscured and the main source of light is now provided by shards of uranium glass that bathe the world in an eerie green glow. The few survivors live in fear of green lung. This is not a local government scheme in which scrawny trees are planted on busy traffic islands as a token gesture to save the environment, but a nasty respiratory disease that leads to certain death. The good news is that there is a vaccine, the bad news is that supplies are controlled by the ruling self-titled Aristocrats who operate a ruthless oligarchy. They hand out regular supplies of vaccine to the rich and powerful in return for their continued support, whilst the rest of the impoverished population are forced to carry out dangerous and unpleasant jobs in order to earn tickets for the vaccine lottery.
This is the predicament in which we find Amy at the start of the game - as you may have guessed she has contracted the deadly green lung disease and has accepted a government job to fix an unstable nuclear reactor to try and win a supply of the vaccine. This is where she encounters the unfortunate guy with terrible injuries who first tells her about a secret underground movement before begging her to put him out of his misery. So begins Amy’s quest to work with the underground movement and discover the Aristocrats’ dark secret.
Amy herself is a really strong female character, a whiz with a screwdriver; she can turn her hand to fixing almost anything. She gamely battles the disease that has claimed her family and when at certain points in the game she suffers a coughing fit, you really feel death knocking impatiently at the door and the ever-pressing need to find a cure before it is too late. Interestingly, this is not a game of good against evil - Amy has to make her own moral decisions and like in real life no major decision is without its consequences. This all sounds a bit heavy, but thankfully the game still manages to introduce a host of intriguing supporting characters and lashings of dark gallows humour to lighten the mood. Indeed, the excellently scripted characters and superb voice acting is one of the game’s real highlights.
The Aristocrats themselves are an odd bunch with a fetish for lavish uniforms. They parade around the place with their powered wigs and flintlock muskets looking like they have escaped from an eighteenth century costume drama. Their leader Tiberius is especially strange, what with his creepy porcelain mask and husky voice.
At first I found the early 1990’s style graphics to be a little jarring on the eyes, they certainly aren’t going to appeal to everyone and unfortunately they do make some background details and objects hard to make out. However, the style soon began to grow on me, with the spooky green glow and mysterious red-eyed ravens giving the game a real distinctive atmosphere. At least the pixelated graphics ensure that the more gruesome scenes (and there is a lot of blood spilt in Shardlight) are not too gratuitous.
The game has a real tense focus and is tightly plotted, which means that thankfully there isn’t much wandering back and forth, as every scene is set over just a handful of locations. In addition, your inventory never becomes cluttered to the point where you are just aimlessly trying to combine and use items in the hope that something will happen. The puzzles themselves are a nice blend of object manipulation, prising information from the varied cast and some clever code breaking that adds an extra interactive element. Inevitably, most of us are going to get stuck at some point but the puzzle solutions never feel illogical or too obscure, indeed the writers have done a wonderful job in ensuring that the player never feels overwhelmed or directionless.
The game has made its way over from the PC unscathed, the unobtrusive interface being uncluttered, responsive and really easy to use. A long tap on the screen will highlight all of the features that you can interact with and then tapping on one of these will display two icons allowing you to examine or interact with the object.
My main concern is that the game is quite short, I would guess at around eight hours for someone reasonably experienced in this type of game. In a game that is on the whole excellently paced, it is a little disappointing that the ending feels a little rushed and doesn’t build up to the kind of climax that I was expecting. You can always go back and play the game again with the vocal commentary turned on. This is a really nice addition for anyone with an interest in game creation, as at various points in the game, the inspiration and thinking behind various aspects of the game are discussed by the designer, producer, artist and musician. A word of warning though, the commentary can sometimes give away clues and certainly takes away from the immersive atmosphere so I recommend leaving this feature turned off on your first play through.
Shardlight is constantly striving to build a real sense of tension and mystery, which is reinforced by an excellent understated soundtrack and the constant announcements that boom over the PA system in true Orwellian style. Who is behind the nihilistic death worshipping Cult Of The Reaper? Why is the place swarming with red-eyed ravens? What is that thing in the jar that Tiberius the leader of the Aristocrats keeps talking to? Hopefully all will be revealed before Amy succumbs to the dreaded green lung.