Combined with books you can choose to read (or not), Ministry announcements playing in the background and a host of characters that are willing to chat and tell you about themselves, Shardlight does a great job of rounding out its world without relying on infodumps or forcing you to wade through it all if you don't want to. Even after characters are seemingly done with you and you're ready to leave an area, you'll often be able to turn around and talk to them again, helping to flesh out the consequences of your previous actions. If you so desire, for example, you can find out how a farmer's crops fared, or whether a woman's baby was born healthy. Conversations also frequently give you different ways to express yourself, and even though it doesn't change the overall outcome, it does give a welcome feeling of agency and encourage you to put yourself in Amy's shoes.
The soundtrack, too, is inspired. Mainly guitar-led but rounded out by piano, bass and drums, there's a worn-out weariness to it, a calm that stops just short of hopelessness. The plaintive solo acoustic guitar picking of the marketplace gives way to electric guitar and more of a rock feel during moments of danger, while your infiltration of a wealthy backer's mansion has the tension of a heist caper. Every track fits comfortably into its environment. The voice work is also of a high standard overall, but it can't always carry the weight of emotion that's sometimes required. When it comes to everyday banter the performances come across as natural and unforced, but there are a few pivotal Grand Guignol moments where they just don't nail the charisma needed to carry the scene. Some of that may be down to the writing, but there are times when the voice-overs need to be great and end up just being fine.
Controls are very standard, particularly if you've played any other Wadjet Eye game: right-click to look, left-click to interact, with an inventory/options pane that drops down from the top of the screen. It's clean and simple and has become the developer’s default scheme for good reason. The only minor oddity is that the title screen doesn't include an option to continue the game, just to start a new one or load from a save. If you didn't save on exit, the game autosaves for you and you can load that file, but it seems a little inelegant, especially given how carefully designed that screen is otherwise.
The puzzles are mostly about pacing your progress rather than making you think particularly hard. With a handful of exceptions, so long as you look around carefully and don't miss anything the solutions are pretty straightforward and don't require any fancy item-combining. There's no real pixel hunting as such, but given how detailed the scenes are it can be tricky at times to spot useful items in amongst the general clutter; a hotspot highlighter would have been handy. Almost all obstacles are item-based, with a few minigames sprinkled in that require you to wield a crayon or chalk or play with a device until you unlock it. There are a couple of more satisfying puzzles, asking you to do your research and either gather materials or work out what to do with what you've learned. It's a shame that there weren't more of these; Amy's a mechanic and presumably used to tinkering with broken-down devices, so not giving her a chance to actually do much of that feels like a real missed opportunity.
One puzzle is neat in theory but finicky in practice. You need to draw out a pattern on a chalkboard to reveal a clue, and you get to draw it (or anything else you fancy) freehand, which is fun. The only problem is that if you draw the pattern a little sloppily (as I did) you can still make out the clue, but the game doesn't recognise you've done it. That means that when you go to perform an action based on the clue, the game teasingly accuses you of cheating and refuses to play ball. I had to redraw the design three or four times before it cottoned on.
Unfortunately, all of Shardlight's careful worldbuilding and rich atmosphere can't hide the fact that the actual plot is a bit lacking, particularly in the second half. For example, you're working to bring down the Aristocrats' selfish regime and free the people, but Tiberius apparently does very little to stop you. He makes some token efforts here and there, but there's really no feeling of tension or building threat as you head towards the climax. Likewise, after filling the first half of the game with enigmatic hints about the Reaper and his red-eyed ravens, the secret is just suddenly dropped on you rather than being teased out for all it's worth. Finally, instead of being the tense climax to a taut game of cat-and-mouse, the ending just feels perfunctory.
On top of that, the two leaders, Tiberius and Danton, are intended as more than mere archetypes of good and evil, but the game does little more than sketch that in. It never makes you feel for Tiberius or really sympathise with his point of view, and only hints at what Danton's fervour could lead to. For all that the world itself is carefully realised, the power players within it and the reasons why it came to be the way it is, are not. That's frustrating, particularly given that these motivations play heavily into a crucial decision you're called on to make in the finale.
The pacing could be better as well. The early stages of the game are quite relaxed, as you get to know your surroundings and the people in it. Things pick up towards the middle as you get on the scent of a secret the Aristocrats are desperate to hide, leading to a few genuinely tense scenes. But just as it feels like the game is hitting its stride you're literally stopped in your tracks, and by the time you've recovered all the momentum is gone. After that it's back to quiet exploration, followed by a somewhat abrupt conclusion. It's unfortunate, too, that after spending the initial portion of the game getting to know Amy's friends, they just kind of fade away by the end.
Even with its narrative inconsistencies, however, the imaginative world and the way you're drawn through it as the game unfolds over its 6-8 hours of playtime make Shardlight's journey more than worthwhile. Even if you'll struggle to remember much of the plot after you’re done, the characters you've met, the scenes you've witnessed and the places you've been will linger in your memory for quite a while. The story wraps up neatly, but I still hope for a sequel, just for the chance to go back and see how Amy and her friends are adjusting to the new world they've made. And perhaps that's all the recommendation that really matters.
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What our readers think of Shardlight
Posted by Dan123 on Mar 22, 2016
Nice way to spend a few hoursWell it was sure a nice way to spend the day. The story is pretty interesting, the setup is great and the graphics are brilliant, though maybe not everybody's cup of tea,... Read the review »
Posted by Pegbiter on Mar 9, 2016