The 2D point-and-click adventure game is not so much an anachronism as it is a highly crystallised art form. The second half of the genre’s 25+ year existence has mostly brought refinement rather than innovation. While recent titles such as Broken Age take some advantage of the greater graphical capabilities of modern systems, others have instead kept close to the genre’s visual roots: getting the most out of limited resolution pixel art.
For several years now, Wadjet Eye have been the most prolific publisher still specialising in point-and-click adventures, bringing us works like The Shivah, the Blackwell series, and Gemini Rue. Shardlight, then, is the latest in what is an impressive lineage.
The game’s protagonist, Amy Wellard, is a car mechanic in a post-nuclear wasteland society where no one drives cars anymore. She works off and on, doing ‘lottery jobs’ for the new Aristocracy, and fixing up her late father’s car repair project in her spare time. The Lottery is a key concept in the game’s plot: a way for the government to distribute vaccines against Green Lung, a deadly plague that has struck the population, the sickest of whom are segregated into the hellish Quarantine Zone.
Lotteries are fascinating things, especially since they are so intimately tied up with issues of poverty and exploitation of marginalised groups, and in this case directly with public health. Luck can be a cruel mistress, but perhaps less so than whoever else is ruling over you at a given moment. The fact that people in Shardlight need to work for the government to even get access to the lottery is heavy with meaning, and either implies the scarcity of the vaccine, or something more sinister…
Regardless, as a result of her latest lottery job, Amy becomes embroiled in a struggle for power between the aristocrat government and an underground resistance group. The detective work Amy has to do to untangle the plot brings her into contact with the locals, many of whom are friends of hers.
Given my fascination with the concept, it’s too bad that the lottery theme is not explored in great depth over the course of the game — though there are plenty of functional references to it that flesh out the setting, and that’s how the game chooses to operate. In many respects, Shardlight plays to the strengths of the genre: it excels at vividly painting a world and its people with broad strokes. Gorgeous pixel art, a few dialogues here and there (with great voice acting), and a moody soundtrack are all you need. The game never gets bogged down by exposition and lore, and ultimately I think that’s for the best, even though that means that the game in this particular case doesn’t cater to one of my cravings.
This admirably balanced approach is maintained without any missteps until the final third of the game, where two character developments left me rather cold. Without wanting to spoil too much: one involves a mundane explanation for something potentially transcendent, while the other has to do with a convenient fanaticism on the part of one character to create a sense of false equivalence in one of the major plot choices. I’m sure there are artistic reasons for wrapping up the story in these ways, but they didn’t quite resonate with me.
That said, it detracts only little from the enjoyment I got out of the game. Following in the tracks of quality works like Resonance, Primordia, and Technobabylon, Shardlight proves that Wadjet Eye know exactly what they’re doing and where they’re going. The game is, on one level, lightweight in the execution of its themes, but it makes the most of that with economical storytelling and puzzles that are at the sweet spot of challenging-but-not-unfairly-so difficulty.