Dark dystopian stories in adventure games have become pretty common these days, but Wadjet Eye Games still delivers.
(USA 2016, developer/publisher: Wadjet Eye Games, platform: PC)
Amy Wellard who does the odd repair job for a aristocratic government that controls the food and vaccines for the working class believes there’s a cure to the disease that decimates the population after the bombs fell.
Old and new Dystopian storytelling
The world in which Amy lives is depressing, but not without a sense of hope. People struggle for daily survival on the streets with their wares to sell, living in their small communities, while the aristocracy, the ruling class, decides with a lottery who lives and who dies. Guards are there to protect them from an underground resistance or just from themselves. The picture Wadjet Eye Games draws seems anything but original, although the lottery twist is certainly interesting. Of course Amy soon joins the resistance, although involuntarily at first, so one shouldn’t expect any surprising turns in the plot and character development, especially since Amy isn’t the most fleshed out or interesting character in the Dystopian genre.
The real stars are the world’s lore and some people’s background stories. With a personified Death in the form of a Grim Reaper who visits people near death, a sect who worships him and therefore embraces death with open arms, the sense of place is great. This even goes so far that black humor is found in children songs that could easily be found in a Dystopian novel with their poetic imagery. The atmosphere of taking part in a society torn into rich and poor lifestyles, the oppressors and depressed is always tangible, so it’s disappointing that the general storytelling lacks suspenseful and surprising elements despite some very good writing in dialogues and monologues, if one overlooks certain over-dramatic elements that become too common in indie games and Wadjet Eye Games titles in particular.
Bloodshed and oppression
What it doesn’t lack is the depiction of cruelty and some violent bloodshed. The former is justified by the whole theme of accepting a dictatorship and living with it, but the latter is often too gory and gratuitous, seen in headshots, pierced bodies, gouged eyes or other mutilations. This was already problematic in a game like Dead Synchronicity: Tomorrow Comes Today, another dystopian story about people in emotional and physical turmoil, although Wadjet Eye Games’ title is more human in tone and has quite a few humorous touches.
Different endings and decisions
Usually one shouldn’t write about the ending in an adventure game to prevent spoilers, but with three different endings that only change depending on a few actions and decisions in the final dialogues, it’s difficult not to be a disappointed that one will have a completely different opinion about the main character, depending on her choices. Granted, these reflect her constant thinking about which sides to choose, but considering that the story is told in a very linear way, the ending is questionable. This is all the more aggravating, because there are some great surreal scenes about memories and decision-making. These are quite touching, but they’re held back by the very linear gameplay that doesn’t leave anything open to the imagination.
Old-school puzzle design
As seems to become a tradition for Wadjet Eye Games (except for the rather difficult, but still excellent Primordia), puzzles play second fiddle to storytelling, and Shardlight is another example of that philosophy, for all the good and bad reasons. Story progression often depends on an almost RPG-like quest system. Instead of collecting experience points and loot, Amy earns the trust of people who in turn help her. While there are points in the story when one can choose which problems to tackle first, one still has to solve all of them to trigger important events. The good thing about this concept is that one is always motivated to explore new locations and talk to people, the bad thing is that solutions to puzzles can be quite obscure, as not everything makes sense.
Except for a few instances, they’re not very original, either, usually relying on rather tiresome fetch quests or learning about codes. At least logical puzzles are almost non-existent, and the way dialogues or reading books are part of the design makes them more based in reality than picking up random objects and combining them. It’s telling that when using items with the environment or creating new ones is concerned, the gameplay falls back on unimaginative puzzles in addition to pixelhunting and unnecessary backtracking, just because a certain object has to be found somewhere else or first given by a person one has to help before. Dying in time-sensitive scenes is also more prominent here than in other adventure games, something that isn’t made easier with the lack of clues what to do in those moments or actually in general.
Artful pixel painting and recording
Pixel art is a trademark of Wadjet Eye Games, and Shardlight shows that it can create some very beautiful scenes despite its low resolution and limited character animations. The backgrounds are especially appealing with warm colors, evoking an almost dream-like feeling when walking through a green park. Desolated parts outside the city with dust blowing around or inside buildings with light particles floating around are just a few of the environmental effects that help to breathe life (or death) into each scene and location. Only the repeated putting on and pulling off cape animation by Amy can get annoying.
Voice acting is pretty good with almost every character sounding their part, something that isn’t so common in Dave Gilbert’s own games that had their fair share of exaggerated delivery of lines. The music is even more impressive, as it features a very cool mix of acoustic guitar pieces in addition to other more down-to-earth instruments, only adding to the depressing but also at times magically uplifting atmosphere in memorable places Amy visits. It’s certainly a unique soundtrack that sets itself apart from the standard indie synth melodies used in indie adventures.
Nothing new in the West, but still beautifully memorable
Shardlight is another accomplished pixel art adventure game in Wadjet Eye Games’ catalogue that oozes atmosphere with its great soundtrack and especially the well-crafted world the characters inhabit. Unfortunately, the background stories and lore are much more interesting than the actual plot and even the main protagonist. It might have something to do with the short playtime of 8 hours or simply because it doesn’t tell anything new in the Dystopian steampunk genre. The same can be said about the puzzles that are mostly well integrated, but don’t stick out as very memorable, either. However, as a whole, the almost RPG-like nature of the gameplay fits the strong post-apocalyptic atmosphere and makes the game another must-play title.
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