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Shardlight Review

OPN YouTube: Shardlight Interview with Francisco Gonzalez, Wadjet Eye Games

I’ll readily admit -- I am the target audience for Shardlight.

I mean, just look at the thing: Shardlight is a post-apocalyptic pixelly adventure game in the artistic vein of the old pre-3D LucasArts adventure titles that’s full of awesome macabre shit like death cults, mad prophesiers, a wicked class warfare dynamic and, to boot, little kids singing utterly creepy nursery rhymes about mythological figures coming to remove you from this mortal coil. As someone who is currently at various stages of reading not one but three apocalypse-based novels, and who grew up puzzling through every early adventure title he could get his young, nerdy hands on, Shardlight might as well have “Made with Trevor Talley in mind” tacked on the loading menu under its name proper.

That being said, as a lifelong fan and peruser of the now rather damn big and varied catalog of adventure games, I also have some pretty high standards for new entries in the genre. To be more clear, while it’s easy for me to like an adventure title simply for being half decent and for keeping the genre alive, to actually love one or, even better, to think it’s as good as some of the agreed-upon classics like Day of the Tentacle, Quest for Glory, Monkey Island or the early King’s Quests takes a title that hits a very extensive and difficult series of design targets.

Shardlight is not quite a classic adventure game, but it is on the right path.

One of those points of potential quality that is pretty much necessary for this genre, and is arguably the most important thing an adventure title can get right, is the mood.

Since mechanics and systemic manipulation are turned down to just about the lowest possible levels (few genres are as pared down in that regard), the draw for this type of interactive entertainment has to be a setting and a general feeling that makes you want to spend time in it. You’re gonna be doing a lot of walking about slowly, having lengthy conversations, staring at a lot of set pieces and taking mostly pretty damn slow, so you better dig the environs if you’re gonna have fun.

Regarding mood and setting, Shardlight is nothing but fine, crafted atmosphere. It may be, in fact, the best-realized traditional adult adventure “look-and-feel” I’ve seen since the heyday of the genre (not including kid-focused titles like Broken Age, or Telltale titles, which are very different in execution than the classic point-and-clickers). The setting, a ruined city in the grips of a very visible and tense class struggle between a throwback “18th century in the future” aristocracy and an underclass scraping by on what they can find in the ruins of society that they’re surrounded by (quite literally, with a Quarantine Zone on the outskirts of the city), is thoroughly rendered to one very grim T.

Analysis of the mood is actually a great way to look at some of Shardlight’s best features all in a group, as it’s the quality of all of the aesthetic parts combined that make it work so nicely to get you in a somber yet edgy dystopian mindset. Video games have always been noted for being an amalgamation of many different art mediums, and adventure titles are some of the entries in the canon that most purely contain examples of various medium work in themselves. It’s actually what a lot of fans look for in these titles, in fact. Luckily, it’s in its bringing to interactive entertainment the traditional art fields of visual art, music, acting and narrative creation that Shardlight shines with its brightest (and greenest) light.

On the visual side, Shardlight is one lovingly rendered sci-fi environment after the next.

And while the overall background art pieces are gorgeous (my particular favorite so far has been the bleak Salt Flats, where an abandoned train sits forever on the desolate outskirts of town, never really escaping the wrecked city seen on the horizon), it’s not all big artworks that make Shardlight look great. Little unnecessarily well-crafted details like a giant creepy statue in the background of a market that has been used as a convenient point to string up post-apocalyptic city wiring, or a blue flower-bedecked vine growing inside of a long-useless phone booth, abound in Shardlight and add a delightful depth to the setting. I say unnecessarily because these are things you wouldn’t expect to be there in most titles, and they show that the artists on this thing weren’t just thinking about making visuals that satisfied the requirements of the basic plot and puzzles, but were instead thinking about making Shardlight look as badass and alive as possible. That you can often interact with these set piece details, even if just to get some flavor text, takes the immersion beyond decent and into deep, smile-inducing territory. It, appropriately, reminds me very much of the detail that Peter Chan and Larry Ahern used to put into those old LucasArts adventures, which isn’t exactly hurting my appreciation for Shardlight.

Some players will point out that the moving parts of Shardlight aren’t exactly Pixar-level animation, and I’ll agree with that, with the qualification that I don’t think it’s really a problem, just an area of lesser quality. Shardlight’s characters and the parts of it that otherwise move about are, other than just the general look and play style, by far the most retro (almost ancient, even) part of the title in that they very much have that simplicity and jerkiness of movement to them that really old adventure titles had. Walking legs and people climbing into windows, as just two examples, look stiff and unnatural, and while there’s some flavor animation like random people walking about, you don’t have much of it, and from a modern perspective that can make settings feel like they’re not as living and breathing you expect from a setting in 2016.

That being said, sometimes the animations are not bad at all, like when there was a stabbing, or when the winged creatures of Shardlight did their thing, and because the rest of the aesthetics and the characters are so fleshed out, I found myself forgiving the animation pretty easily. You get used to it quickly, and I more was thinking that I can’t wait to see what Wadjet Eye could do with it if they ever get a bigger budget than I was feeling that they’d messed up somehow.

Speaking of the characters, one place where Shardlight certainly did not skimp was the voice acting. Unlike the early days of pixelly adventure titles, you just can’t do a modern entry in the genre without real voices, and that’s a challenge that an indie studio without a colossal budget at its disposal has to do a lot of work to overcome. Wadjet Eye more than overcame with their voice actors, as most of the performances were absolutely top notch, with just a few somewhat stilted performances that were more endearing than actually bad. The great performances though, including for the heroine Amy and the apocalyptic overlord/mask wearer/freak Tiberius, were nuanced and engaging. I don’t know that I’ve heard an actor pull off chronic post-apocalypse tiredness underneath every word, no matter the surface emotion, better than the actress for Amy since The Last of Us.

The voices aren’t the only good sounds to be had in Shardlight, as the music is something special as well.

It's good in the subtle shit; like the art, it does its work in the details. In real life I also work as a music publication editor, and putting Shardlight under that lens, I like what it does with melody. It's precise and it's mood fitting. It reminds me how much music and mood can do for an adventure title, like it did in Monkey Island. I particularly dig the music in the cathedral of the death cult; it reminds me of the band Tortoise, who played melody with skill and restraint and atmosphere. When a character in the scene remarks "That's a catchy tune they're playing," it’s the truth- I had it in my head for a while after.

That death cult is an important part of why I think the story here, arguably the thing Shardlight most needs to get right, is pretty damn good stuff. Nothing in the setup for Shardlight is new: post-apocalypse, deadly viruses, class struggle in a dystopic city, these are all well-worn tropes. But, it manages to be a nice version of all of these and overall a worthy addition to the overall sci-fi canon by focusing on just the right subjects and approaching everything with a palpable and authentic respect and love for sci-fi itself. For instance, death cults are nothing new in sci-fi, especially post-apocalyptic sci-fi, but they’re rarely as focused on and explored as the death cult in Shardlight. It also makes the relatively rare choice to focus on a very recent apocalypse, and the even rarer choice to make the reasons for that apocalypse fully known from the beginning, and Shardlight spends just the amount of time and resources fleshing out the story of the world pre- and post- the Big Bad Moment of Doom. When it comes to the immediate story of Amy and her adventures in this world, I found myself able to predict a few easy things, but was also often surprised at where Shardlight veered away from expectations, such as the intense ending of the first act. That kind of familiarity blended with surprises is exactly what makes up a good sci-fi narrative, and so while Shardlight won’t sit up there with the best science fiction stories of all time, it was in the “good with moments of great” strata of this kind of fiction.

Of course, while all of this aesthetic speak is very important for the genre Shardlight falls into, this is still a game, and I haven’t talked much about the actual play yet.

Anyone who has spent even the slightest amount of time with a point-and-click is well aware that this is where an adventure title can easily fail, whether it’s that the puzzles are too easy, too hard, too obscure, feel trite or contrived or just plain aren’t fun or interesting. It should be a good sign to all then that it took a while for me to hit any snags in my puzzle-enjoyment, and that there have only been three of those so far. In the interests of getting this review done, I went ahead and looked these puzzles up (as the developers themselves say, it happens to the best of us in adventure titles), and it was always just a single little thing I had missed holding up the advancement of the story. Overall, I found the puzzles fun and engaging, if not always perfectly refined. You’ll still be doing some pixel hunting, and you’ll probably find at least one time where you’re walking around from room to room clicking on literally everything to make something, anything happen. I think I would have liked a few to be more complex, not in a difficulty-way, but in a “more pieces required” kind of way, using a longer list of items and needing more for the puzzle to be completed. But, that desire is probably very influenced by the fact that adventure puzzles were more like that when I was younger. For a modern audience, simpler puzzles might well be a positive rather than a negative.

In the end though, that desire for a bit more and a bit bigger of a scale is the only weighty criticism I can level at Shardlight, which I believe is a title that’s certainly earned its place on your digital shelf if you’re an adventure (and especially a point-and-click) fan. It's just on the edge of amazing, if not quite there. Shardlight’s good moments remind me of how an adventure title’s story, aesthetic and location can come together to envelop you in what you’re playing and take your heart and soul and mind all into it for a minute. To put it back into my music editor terms, it's a solid EP from a talented band working in a thoughtful, artistic scene with a lot of history. It is tempered by less gripping moments, but it hits into high-note territory on the strikingness scale when it does hit its high, well-wrought notes. The voice acting and the other things Wadjet Eye is improving with each title and doing well at are working for Shardlight, but they still don't quite hit that better-than-a-movie feel and pace of the classics in the adventure genre.

If I have a request for Wadjet Eye in the future, it's to give me more. If this was a film, I’d want more scenes, a bigger scope. An extra location hub early would have kicked ass, two would have been great. Do whatever you have to do, Wadjet Eyers, to get to a point where you can throw a budget twice as big again as Shardlight's at a title. I know that's hard, but the game I know you can make would be incredible. I want someone to top LucasArts and Sierra, and while I don't know if that'll ever happen, you at Wadjet Eye are the best bet we have for it.


The Verdict

For how well Shardlight does at what it does well, and the fact that we are far removed from the salad days of digital adventure creation when developers had the full strength of some of the most powerful studios in the world behind their ideas, Wadjet Eye should be very satisfied with their effort, not to mention encouraged with heartfelt earnestness to keep on with what they’re doing in the medium. And, you should play their creepy game.

Trevor Talley
Written by
Wednesday, 23 March 2016 00:00
Published in Adventure



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Trevor used to tell people that he writes anything 'they' pay him for and everything else. But, what he really wants to do is sit on his porch all day with a beer, listening to Berliner techno while pounding culture into his brain through a computer screen and then writing about it. Trevor subjects the internet to his musical tastes as editor of The Deli Austin and his credits include PC Gamer, the infamous Busted! Magazine and over a dozen books on Minecraft and sports (not together, though he thinks it could be done).

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