In the ruins of a world ravaged by nuclear war, people afflicted with a deadly disease called Green Lung take on menial, often dangerous jobs to earn a lottery ticket that may win them a dose of life-saving vaccine. Protagonist Amy Wellard has the disease, and we join her as she begins one of these so-called lottery jobs. A generator has stopped working and Amy’s task is to climb into a dark, filthy sewer and reactivate it.
The de facto rulers of this world, the Aristocrats, hire people like her to do their dirty work in exchange for the vaccine that they, conveniently, control. While the downtrodden masses live in filthy squalor among the debris of civilisation, the Aristocrats – who dress like Civil War generals and wear creepy porcelain masks to protect them from the poison air – live pampered lives in palatial homes.
But while a lot of post-apocalypse fiction paints the underclass as struggling and desperate, the people in Shardlight’s broken city seem to have made a life for themselves. Amy visits a shanty town market bustling with shoppers and has friendly conversations with people. It’s a far cry from the bleak wasteland of Fallout, and you get the feeling that society is beginning to piece itself back together.
Amy locates the generator in the sewer, but also finds a man crushed beneath fallen masonry. This is the moment that sets Shardlight’s story in motion. Dying and beyond help, the man asks Amy to deliver a letter to someone in town. If she does, he says, “everything will change.” It’s an intriguing setup that sets Amy on the path to meeting an underground resistance group who oppose the Aristocrats.
If you’ve played a Wadjet Eye game before, you know the deal. Shardlight is a traditional point-and-click adventure with lots of dialogue, some exploration, and the occasional tough puzzle. The presentation, although low-res, is typically fantastic, with detailed backgrounds and character portraits, and the voice acting and music are superb. But in terms of design, it’s so steeped in adventure gaming’s past that it feels slow and wilfully obtuse at times. You’ll find yourself in those situations where you don’t know what to do next, revisiting every location, clicking on everything, talking to everyone. This is a problem with most old-style adventures, of course, but that doesn’t give this one a free pass. Humour is often what keeps you going in adventure games when the puzzles get frustrating, but Shardlight plays it very straight. There are some lighter moments, but mostly the story is as sombre and serious as your surroundings. Shardlight isn’t one of Wadjet Eye’s best adventures, but it’s not one of its worst either. It’s an average adventure game that’s just about kept afloat by its world and story. But I never found myself that invested in what was happening after the first couple of hours.