Shardlight for iOS review
This review is for the iOS port of 2016's point-and-click adventure Shardlight by Wadjet Eye Games (Gemini Rue, Primordia, the Blackwell series). If you've already played Shardlight on the PC and are looking to play it again on the subway, I'll summarize the review for you and let you get on your way: it's exactly the same game, without achievements and with a fiddly detection box for dragging inventory items.
For those of you who didn't catch this game last year, Shardlight is a post-apocalyptic adventure game with a fresh take on the apocalypse. Yes, there were bombs. Yes, the comforts of society are gone. Yes, a wealthy class emerged to hoard resources while keeping the common people down. But the game plays with all of these tropes to tell a unique story.
For starters, the apocalypse is very recent; our protagonist Amy is in her early twenties and she remembers the bombings. Also, radiation or giant mutants aren't the obstacle in humanity's struggle to survive; the bombs poisoned the air, giving the unlucky a fatal and contagious disease called "Green Lung." The most striking difference between this post-apocalyptic story and others with similar plots is the way that humanity has responded to the bombings: society is still intact, for the most part. People gather in the markets. They barter food rations for works of art. They read books by the communal well. People are scrambling for survival, but that's not all they're doing. It's a welcome change from traditional post-apocalypse stories.
That isn't to say that the game doesn't revolve around high stakes; Amy has Green Lung and without regular vaccinations, she'll die. Vaccine doses are rare and the underclass has to earn lottery tickets by performing a series of undesirable jobs for the Aristocracy. On one of these lottery jobs, Amy finds a dying man who gives her a mysterious letter. This kicks off a series of daring escapes, double and triple crosses and shocking revelations that could upend her world's relatively stable society.
The characters are easily this game's strongest asset. Amy is an intriguing protagonist. She's smart, brave and well-liked among the market-dwellers. She isn't the brooding loner or damaged killer that typically populates this sort of story. The supporting cast is equally strong. Tiberius, the main antagonist, a sinister bureaucrat who presses Amy into his service casts a striking figure in a powdered wig and a porcelain mask/gas mask combo. He forces desperate people do to dangerous jobs in order to stave off the killer disease for a little longer while he and his colleagues live in relative luxury. That being said, his motives for his wicked acts are more than just consolidating power and wealth; he clearly believes he's working for the good of all people and this misguided belief makes him all scarier. He wields absolute power while responding to fear and paranoia.
I find myself caring deeply about Amy's assorted friends and co-conspirators and worrying about their safety when Tiberius springs his trap. The game comes by these connections honestly, showing you why you should root for these people instead of simply telling you to do so. I was fully invested in Amy's journey, and when the game gave me a climatic decision, I had a hard time choosing what would be best for my friends.
The game is only a year old, but it has a deliberately low-resolution look, similar to the style of the Lucasarts classic The Dig. Even with the retro look, the locations are gorgeous. The areas are distinct and varied, telling a small story about the world. I was especially impressed by a church bisected by a jumbo jet, the ground zero of the bombing, and Tiberius' opulent study. The art style made it easy to spot interactive objects, and if it was ever unclear I could tap and hold on the background to display a list of hotspots.
I especially liked the character portraits. All of the characters have illustrated, full-face closeups when you speak with them. They were static faces, without changing facial expressions or lipsyncing, but they served to make a connection to the character that'd wouldn't otherwise be possible due to the classic art style. Each character has a look that fits well with the setting, from the crotchety old woman living on the outskirts of the city to the murderous prison guard.
Art and story aside, however, Shardlight is a game that revolves around its puzzles -- and they're not particularly good. I didn't find any of them fun and inventive. The majority were of the "find an item, give the item to someone else" variety, and whenever the game branched off from that formula, the puzzles became confounding and poorly-explained. I mostly solved the game through brute force, clicking on everything, handing everything to everyone, shooting everything with the crossbow. Shardlight quickly became a series of obstacles I had fight my way through to get to the good stuff, instead of enjoying the game on its own merits.
I touched on it earlier, but it's worth repeating in greater detail: The touch interface for this game is frustratingly inaccurate. Clicking on an interactive object is easy; all the main hotspots are exactly where you expect them to be. However, the hit box for inventory objects used on hotspots can be pretty much anywhere. Most of the time they're up and significantly to the left of their labels, but sometimes it's down and to the left, or just straight up. There's very little consistency to where you'd find the box, which only compounds the problem. If you always knew to offset your item drag a certain amount, you could compensate without problem. As it stands, you have to do a pixel hunt, trying to find the exact sweet spot in order to hand over a letter or drop a lump of wood into the oven. Hot spots on the top of the screen caused me the most headache; touching too close to the top would trigger the inventory bar. This served to make me doubt what I thought was an obvious puzzle solution. Early on, I couldn't tell if the problem was with the interface or that the game simply ignored incorrect solutions. Save yourself some frustration: Shardlight will acknowledge any item to hotspot (or item to item) interaction, even if to just tell you "I don't think that will do any good."
Ultimately, everything surrounding the game (the setting, the art style, the characters, the plot) is so good that the dull puzzles and clumsy touch interactions hardly matter. It's a solid adventure game and a worthy distraction on your phone.