A better name for Catware's role-playing game Shattered Light would be Diablo Lite. What has been removed from Blizzard's now-classic dungeon romp? Three things: a polished interface, attractive graphics, and fun.
Shattered Light is essentially an RPG adventure builder with a sample quest included. The packaged campaign tells the story of Delos, a world "not unlike our own" until someone rather stupidly tries to "capture the primal power of the universe." The upshot of this quite frankly insane attempt to "capture the primal power of the universe" is that Delos becomes less like our world and more like Middle Earth. Some inhabitants become much more magical, while others become one of over a hundred monsters such as dragons and unicorns. As a result of all the newfound fantastical wizardry, medieval weapon stores are opened, dungeons are constructed, and many people lose things then offer rewards for their retrieval. You are cast as the hero of Delos. Your duties include wandering all over the place and finding the ten gem shards needed to access the dungeon containing the Final Boss Monster of Delos, the Laria.
As in any standard RPG, you must first create a character. Shattered Light includes eight character types covering all the basics, with spell casters, fighters, and various combinations of the two. The character creation screen is where you'll get your first sense that you may not have purchased a triple-A title. Of the eight choices, three have the exact same palette-swapped portraits. A small detail perhaps, but indicative of Shattered Light's generic, bargain-bin atmosphere.
The game itself, like Diablo, plays out in real time across maps rendered in isometric perspective. The graphics are tile based, rather washed out, and not particularly mood setting or otherwise interesting. The interface is presented as a series of desktop windows. The main playfield, inventory, spell list, etc. are all separate, often overlapping, screens. Performing a standard operation, such as removing an active inventory item and replacing it with another, often involves opening up several windows and manually dragging them into viewable position. This is a tedious drill at best, and, when attempted during a time-critical situation such as combat, effectively sucks the fun right out of Shattered Light.
A good adventure can overcome shoddy graphics or a clunky interface with an imaginative plot and interesting gameplay. Shattered Light, unfortunately, has neither. For a game that advertises quests written by such noted fantasy authors as Robert Silverberg, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and P.N. Elrod, Shattered Light has virtually no task more elaborate than listening to an NPC describe his lost treasure, then fetching it for him. There is no sense of an evolving story composed of a complex chain of actions and reactions. The only thing leading you to believe that multiple authors may have written the plot is the inconsistent way in which NPCs address you. Some speak directly to you, while others have their actions narrated in the third person, perhaps by famous fantasy author Jody Lynn Nye - who knows?
Gamers excited by the possibility of creating their own adventures with Shattered Light's world builder will be disappointed. Although every map, monster, item, spell, and NPC can be redefined, graphics must be selected from the stock images provided with the game, and the basic goal of finding the ten gem shards cannot be altered. More importantly, no scripting language is included, severely limiting the storytelling possibilities. While the ability to tweak the stats of every game item might give the illusion of creative power, the core quest activity of item retrieval is immutable. This inability to script sophisticated event sequences outside of the standard quest structure leads inevitably to frustration for anyone hoping to create compelling scenarios.
The provided editing tools are also subpar. Editing screens contain lists of hundreds of items each with ten or more separate attributes, yet they cannot be sorted or searched through, making managing them needlessly cumbersome. In other places, previously defined items must be linked to other items by manually typing their cryptic identifier tags, rather than simply picking them from a list. These are just two of many examples of the editor's overall lack of polish - excusable when the tool is included as a bonus, but not when it is a game's central feature.
Shattered Light includes a server application that allows user-created scenarios to be experienced by up to eight people simultaneously over the Internet. The host can act as a sort of dungeon master, altering some statistics on the fly. Mutiplayer works as advertised and is stable, but the rewards of playing the game are so meager as to make this fact all but irrelevant.
In the early '90s, SSI released an RPG builder called Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures. It secured a cult following and, although out of print, retains a community of quest creators to this day. To anyone who fondly remembers that game and hopes some developer will bring its robust scripting capabilities into the realm of Internet multiplayer gaming: With the release of Shattered Light, your wait continues.