Twenty years after the bombs fell. Ruined buildings in a blasted landscape, disease running rampant, and... dandies in porcelain masks? Flintlock pistols? Shardlight, the latest sci-fi title from Wadjet Eye, presents a stylish and uniquely retro take on the apocalypse, full of interesting characters, diverse locations and a host of lovely little touches. The story may flag a bit in the second half and stumble to a rushed conclusion, but this is still a memorable experience in a world I would be glad to revisit.
Amy Wellard has only two things on her mind: finding the last few parts to fix up the classic car she's been working on for years, and winning a cure for her Green Lung. Ever since war irradiated the world, Green Lung has been endemic. There is a vaccine, but it's jealously guarded (just like everything else) by the ruling Aristocracy with doses offered up only as prizes in the vaccine lottery. And you can't just buy tickets, you have to earn them by taking on the kind of jobs nobody else will do. Jobs like fixing a malfunctioning reactor, a task which has already left one man fighting for his last breaths.
While the lucky few live in grand houses surrounded by the best of everything – including all the vaccine they need – the rest of society huddles in the shattered remains of bombed-out cities, scavenging for whatever is usable and struggling to grow anything at all in the poisoned land. Resources such as medicine, energy and even knowledge are tightly controlled by the Ministries, which answer only to the Aristocracy. The scent of revolt is in the air, but after the brutal quelling of previous rebellions by government forces, the resistance has gone underground, biding its time. Until now, Amy has been content to just eke out a living, helping her friends and working on her car, but a dying man's last request to deliver a letter soon draws her into the more rebellious side of the family business and the shady world behind the Aristocracy's opulent facade.
As if that wasn't enough to contend with, the Reapers are lurking around every corner. Not quite a death cult, they believe it is a blessing to be taken by their grim namesake, to die and be freed from this awful world. They also believe red-eyed ravens are harbingers of the Reaper and will flock to those about to die. Congregating in a ruined cathedral and consisting mainly of those dying of Green Lung, they pray to the Reaper for swift release and celebrate each other's passing. Is this mere superstition, faint hope and comfort for the doomed, or is there something more going on here? When Amy, badly injured, is apparently visited by the Reaper, she becomes determined to find out.
The world of Shardlight is unique. Sure, it's yet another post-apocalyptic dystopia, but it's a dystopia with style. Even though it's set in the late 21st century, two decades after a nuclear war, everything in it harks back to the past. From the architecture to the broken-down cars, you could believe the bombs dropped in the 1950s, not the 2050s. Then there's the Aristocracy, who've borrowed their sense of style directly from the French Revolution, and their idols (and names) from the Romans. Their leader goes by Tiberius, while the head of the revolutionaries – in a nod to her French counterparts – is Danton. The Reapers, in turn, prefer to revel in Victoriana, with their formal black coats and top hats. Yet despite all that, a sprinkling of more futuristic technology, such as a touch-screen navigation system and a reactor-in-a-jar, reminds you that this is indeed the future, albeit a future obsessed with the past. This is a game steeped in history, even as its characters appear to have forgotten history's most important lessons.
All this is backed up with a top-notch presentation, and the graphics really sparkle with light and life. The low-res retro aesthetic may not be for everyone, but it has rarely been used better than it is here. Every scene (pixels aside) looks hand-painted and is full of little details and flourishes. This is a broken-down world being slowly reclaimed by nature, with crumbling buildings and tattered flags but also flowers growing through the cracked pavement and even a tree bursting through a roof. A sign smashed against a building shows its internals, while walls are covered in posters for everything from a decades-old Julius Caesar production to government propaganda messages.
There's also a glorious variety of locations to explore, from the Fallout-esque underground bunker you start in, through a crumbling city market with a hint of North African medina about it, to the old-world charm and opulence of the Aristocrats' palaces and mansions. The dominant colour palette of beiges, browns and a sort of queasy yellow stands in stark contrast to the typical sci-fi neon and chrome environments and gives the game an old-fashioned, earthy feel. That yellow tinge also ties in nicely with the sickness, both of the society and its people.
Such a muted colour scheme could easily have turned out dull and bland, but here it's neatly broken up by shafts of sunlight, some glorious sunsets and the ever-present shards, the fragments of glowing radioactive uranium glass that give the game its name. Every screen is full of life, too, with signs and flags fluttering, windmills spinning and water rippling. The market, in particular, bustles with pedestrians and customers, with literally dozens of them going about their business around you.
Even the title screen deserves special mention. In a view over a blasted landscape, the options are presented as shards hanging from a branch. Start a new game, though, and that scene seamlessly becomes the beginning of the intro cinematic: the option text fades out, the camera starts to pan and off we go. That scene ends with Amy climbing down into the bunker and then you're in charge; from clicking "new" to taking your first actions there are no breaks or cuts. It's very slick, and makes you feel just that bit more immersed in the world. Right away you can really feel the care and attention to detail that's been lavished on this game.
In fact, wherever you turn you find extra little worldbuilding touches that go above and beyond what is necessary just to tell the story. My favourite example is a group of children outside Amy's workshop. They're skipping rope and singing rhymes, except instead of “Ring a Ring o' Roses” we get charming takes on Green Lung and the Reapers. Amy can talk to them, learn a little about their lives, even ask to join in, skip for a bit herself and sing her own medley of songs. There's no need for them to be there – they're not involved in the plot or any of the puzzles and you can totally ignore them if you want, but they do so much to draw you in and make this feel like a real place, full of real people.Continued on the next page...