After fixing a dangerous nuclear reactor and killing a dying man by shooting his head with a crossbow, I finally meet one of Shardlight’s antagonists for the first time--Tiberius. With his unusual 18th century nobleman getup, including a white curled wig and a dashing, deep blue waistcoat, Shardlight’s depiction of Tiberius and its many other villains is one of the few times the game excitedly leaves its own print on the familiar post-apocalyptic setting.
Developer Wadjet Eye Games’ old-school point-and-click adventure game is an amalgam of all-too familiar themes, ideas and mechanics. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a failed nuclear war, where you take the role of Amy Wellard, a young woman looking to cure her disease, Green Lung. Along the way, she stumbles into a conspiracy involving the government, a rebel group, and eerie mysticism.
Shardlight plays similarly to classic point-and-click games like Full Throttle and The Day of the Tentacle. You move around the world by clicking on environments--the same way that you examine every nook and cranny for clues and points of interest. The pixel-art aesthetic employed here is beautiful and brimming with details that bring grim and decaying environments to life. Shardlight is set in a 2D plane, and the locations you explore are pre-rendered backgrounds, inhabited by NPCs and wildlife in the foreground.
A large salt field with an abandoned locomotive is one of the highlights. The glistening silver field is contrasted by a lone, decaying tree and a fractured city skyline in the distance. The scene's sooty train--designed after Soviet Union locomotives from the early 1900s--commands your attention. In such locations you collect everyday items like salt, steel buckets and wood. You then have to figure out how to put them to use, either to make new items or to directly solve Shardlight's many puzzles. Can I put this grain of salt I have into the steel bucket? No? Then maybe I can combine the salt with the wood and figure out what I should do with it and progress through the game.
If this all sounds like adventure game 101, that’s because it is. Shardlight's mechanics leave little room for surprises, but there are moments when satisfyingly challenging and clever puzzles make things a little more exciting.
One such puzzle had me reading a few pages of a book to discover how calligraphic signs were the key to deciphering a much needed code. I ended up drawing on a blackboard filled with unusual symbols and then deciphered what it all meant, and what I needed to do next. Another puzzle turned me into an amateur scientist for a moment as I had to figure out how to make a carbon dioxide compound. This required finding a chemistry textbook, briefly studying the recipe for the compound and hunting down a stove needed to make it. However, some puzzles are forgettable and lack impact. Figuring out how to steal chalk from a character or finding seeds to feed some ravens are trivial affairs that feel like a waste of time.
Shardlight’s main baddies are a corrupt group of oligarchs called the Aristocrats. They keep people under their control, from getting rid of anyone that opposes them to managing all of the vaccines for Green Lung. Those in the Aristocrats’ lower ranks sport blue uniforms similar to what the Continental Army wore during the American Revolution. Some of the Aristocrats’ leaders, like Tiberius, sport more expensive clothing alongside weird mechanical masks.
Aside from the Aristocrats and raven-obsessed fanatics, Shardlight’s post-apocalyptic premise fails to differentiate itself.
This take on oligarchs is one of the few original ideas the game brings to the table, and it’s an interesting aesthetic choice that pays off. Shardlight also contains an idiosyncratic and unnerving cult obsessed with death and ravens--they do an excellent job of frightening people into believing ravens are powerful otherworldly entities. They even have their own churches where they perform religious death rituals on diseased and desperate volunteers. It highlights just how grim and frightening Shardlight’s world is, where a deranged cult can take advantage of the government’s poor treatment of its citizens.
Aside from the Aristocrats and raven-obsessed fanatics, Shardlight’s premise fails to differentiate itself from the myriad post-apocalyptic fiction out there. Survivors have to constantly fend off disease as well as deal with hunger, death, and a corrupt government while the rich mostly get by without any issues. Buildings are half-standing, crippled; cars are abandoned everywhere; and the markets and streets are a complete mess. Characters often reminisce about the days before the bombs fell, when everything was normal. They have moral dilemmas with the choices they make in order to survive. Should I kill this young man for his food and supplies? Should I steal meat from my friend’s store?
Shardlight takes a large amount of inspiration from The Walking Dead, Fallout and especially George Orwell’s 1984. The troubling aftermath from atomic bombs going off is a story idea Fallout has continually nailed for decades now. The same rings true for The Walking Dead's aesthetic depiction of ravished cities and towns, and 1984's nerve-racking Big Brother. Shardlight wears these influences on its sleeve to a fault, doing little to innovate upon these concepts in new and interesting ways.
Some of Shardlight’s ideas, like the eccentric and sinister Aristocrats, offer something original and enjoyable within a familiar context. With its refreshing take on an oligarchy and subtle religious commentary involving ravens, Shardlight has potential to be something a lot more profound and thrilling. Instead, it's a typical adventure game with an overly familiar premise.