It’s a bad sign that Wadjet Eye’s Shardlight takes its title from the ubiquitous uranium-charged crystals that provide artificial lighting to the citizens of its post-apocalyptic setting. Not only does the game prove to be repetitious in its puzzle design, relying far too often on literally primitive solutions (shooting things with a trusty crossbow), but the tough moral choices hinted at by the dark storyline are as artificial as that crystalline light.
Whereas Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis once gave players a branching narrative depending on their preferred method for puzzle-solving (wits, fists, teamwork), Shardlight asks players to choose to operate as a spy or double agent, only to remove that agency, forcing them down a linear path. By the rushed final third of the game, Wadjet Eye has squandered the dystopic beauty of their Beneath a Steel Sky-like world, and the ultimate choice between protecting the corrupt Aristocracy or enabling the bloodthirsty rebels feels flatter than Mass Effect 3’s identical triune of endings.
Problematic design choices actually corrode Shardlight from the get-go, from the frustratingly old-school pixel hunts for necessary items on each screen to the overly sensitive way in which some of the tactile-based puzzles don’t recognize a valid solution. Corpses are strewn around to the point of being as decorative as the titular shards, and players are forced to redundantly examine each one in the hopes of scavenging essential items. Other objects are poorly described, to the point at which it’s difficult to parse the way in which they’re meant to be used, and the game relies too frequently on the fresh dialogue prompts that appear as the story unfolds, a tactic that encourages needless backtracking, especially if players have overlooked a key item. More critically, Shardlight clumsily unfolds in opposition to other games, gradually decreasing inventory items and visitable locations instead of opening the world up to those who’ve been keenly observing it.
This is especially disappointing because the game’s world-building and voice acting are strong. The first half is successful because it gives Amy Wellard the freedom to roam between the collapsing Market District and the upscale Fripp Square, seeing firsthand how the actions of Tiberius and the Ministry of Medicine have kept the poorer population in check. By showing sympathetic and cruel versions of both worlds, the game is able to sell its mid-game twist in a way that doesn’t obviously make the Aristocracy evil—spoilers herein—they’re deliberately oppressing the poor by stockpiling and rationing out their temporary vaccine for the deadly Green Lung disease, but only out of fear that if their nation recovers too quickly, they’ll be bombed once again.
That twist comes at great expense, however, because it leaves nothing else for players to discover in the nuance-less second act. Danton is no longer a thoughtful, desperate rebel, just a bloodthirsty revolutionary, and Tiberius turns from being a necessary tyrant to an emphatically sadistic ruler. In stripping these characters of their humanity, Wadjet Eye ends up turning Amy into a generic messiah, doubling down not on her reluctant sense of self-preservation, but the idea that she’s more necessary to the revolution than those who’ve been fighting and infiltrating the Aristocracy for years.
Every interesting concept in Shardlight is undone by the race to an ending. The Reapers, a top hat-wearing death cult operating out of a church that’s been impaled by an airplane, are a mysterious, depressing organization. They epitomize both the hopelessness of the lower class and their ability to band together for comfort, shunning suicide, but praying for a hastening of their natural, celebrated “expiration dates.” And then there’s the Quarantine Zone, where the bombs were initially dropped 20 years ago, and where those in the terminal stages of Green Lung are sent to die. There’s a lot of mystique built up about this inescapable and inhospitable exile, which serves to make the poor thankful that they’re not that bad off. And yet, like the game itself, these ideas don’t hold up to actual interaction. A death-drug-induced hallucination is all it takes for Amy to expose this misguided faith; meanwhile, Amy not only finds plenty of distilled water throughout the Quarantine Zone, but literally escapes merely by pressing a large red button labeled “Corpse Disposal.”
Shardlight comes with a blooper reel and four different commentary tracks from the art team, producer, designer, and musical director. A lot of time, love, and effort has gone into making the game look and sound great. But without better puzzles and a sense of pacing, it’s all inexcusably empty—a bit like a fancy wedding reception without a caterer. Shardlight, then, is a mere fragment of the game it could’ve been, as there’s nothing holding it together.