Styx *hurrkk* Master of Shadows published by Focus Home Interactive and developed by Cyanide Studios (who you might know because of Impire) is apparently a prequel to the game Of Orcs and Men, a game from back in 2012. No, I hadn’t heard of it before either. A quick Google search informs me that Of Orcs and Men has an average review score of approximately 65/100 and that seems to be about as much as one can say about it, overall nothing particularly special. Well, apparently that makes it prime series material as Cyanide use one of the main characters, Styx the First Goblin, and provide him with an origins story of sorts from when he wants to attempt to steal the Heart of the World Tree.
The gameplay of Styx is pretty uncompromising in what it wants to do, it makes it clear early on that it is a stealth game and makes no excuses about this. Thus one plays as Styx, sneaking in third person through a variety of missions with the overall objective of reaching the World Tree.
The game is an odd mixture of a dollop of surprisingly good along with a handful of frustratingly bad, along with just a smattering of those Indie quirks people can expect of games which do not have an unending budget (such as scenery and clothes clipping through other scenery and human bodies respectively). The good includes the level design and gameplay while the bad more comes from the story and pacing.
My very first impressions of the game were actually of my issues with exactly that; the story and pacing. You are introduced to Styx by a cutscene (involving a voice-over on a series of still images, which is the classic go-to style for easily affordable cutscenes) in which you learn that he is in a dungeon, being tortured by one Lord Barimen in order to learn about his plot to steal the world-tree. Then, suddenly you are thrown into the game via a flashback. Not exactly unusual, but made more confusing by the fact that you apparently start in a prison and also start with amnesia, which actually led me to be under the impression that the game was taking place immediately after the interrogation, which was why when it then flashes back to the interrogation after each mission I was pretty bloody confused as to what the fuck was going on.
Even aside from being just awkward to follow, the jumping back and forward thing makes the story stop and start a lot, it keeps dragging you out of the gameplay and back into this story that Styx is telling, right before we then play it. All in all, not the best of starts to the game.
It is also possible that some elements of the game are introduced in Of Orcs and Men and so they are rather under-explained in Styx. For example, there is the fact that the entire game is apparently set inside the miles high Tower of Akanesh, a tower which obviously has a sun and sky of its own (as most towers do) and a giant city floating around in the middle (because all the buildings are gigantic and so you spend your time wandering around platforms with no sight of the ground underneath you). Other things as well, such as Lord Bariman, Styx and the mana/drug Amber are only very briefly introduced, and this is likely because they too are pre-existing pieces of lore, which made it that bit more difficult to get into the game.
So, not all is well in the beginning of Styx, which makes the intro feel slow and confusing and thus might even be enough to discourage you from playing further. However, it is after the, surprisingly long intro missions are finished that the game finally starts to feel like it is coming into its own.
As I have said already, first and foremost the game is stealth-based. You must sneak around the maps, avoiding dozens of patrolling guards, civilians and other enemies all without any of the fancy magic of Dishonored or the myriad of tools used in Thief. Styx does have some magical abilities of his own, a brief invisibility spell (which is actually not as overpowered as it might sound in a stealth game), a Batman-esque detectiv- I mean AMBER vision and the ability to create a clone of himself, which can cause distractions, open doors and get some places Styx himself cannot.
But that’s about it really. The rest of the time, the player must rely on his own wits, timing and planning in order to sneak through swathes of guards to reach wherever he is going.
And I do mean that you have to plan things out, take notes of where guards routes take them, time your opportune moment to get passed them. It’s a stealth game in which patience is important, which suits it perfectly and makes the stealth feel tense and careful. Of course, the moments when you are nearly seen but save yourself with quick thinking and a bit of hurried sneaking are also pretty awesome when they do occur.
One of the big reasons that the stealth is so important is because combat is so dreadful, and I mean this in a good way. Every review you see will probably mention that Styx has an awful combat system, but I think this is definitely a good thing, because it actively encourages people to avoid getting into a fight. Combat is essentially a one-on-one where you must time a series of parries in a quick-time event style before capitalising on those parries to go for the killing blow. Meanwhile you can be surrounded by other guards throwing knives and shooting at you, which can kill you faster than you can focus on the one guard you ARE actually fighting. Essentially, if you ever get into a fight with more than one person, you’re gonna have a bad time.
A bit more frustrating is how hard it is to get OUT of combat once it has started. Sure if you are being chased then you can outrun and hide from your pursuers, but if combat has actually started then you enter a sort of “fight mode” which makes running and escaping again frustratingly difficult. This might be another intended design element, but I would have liked to see it be a little easier to disengage from combat.
Naturally, it is possible to go for stealth kills before any actually alarms occur, but this time there is none of that namby-pamby knocking people out from other games. No, this time its knife to the throat or nothing (although I will say that it makes absolutely no sense that for the muffled kills you choke the guards out for a few seconds before slitting their throats). Even then, stealth kills can draw attention from others nearby, so you can’t go on a Dishonored murder spree through a field of foes.
So, as you are encouraged to avoid killing for at least a fair portion of the enemies, and you are also actively encouraged to avoid combat, the stealth elements really take to the fore. And what makes them all that much better is the fact that the levels are rather excellently designed. While each area you traverse is small and linear in the sense that you must get from point A to point B, there are often many options to choose from in getting to your objective. You can go for the bold plays and sneak along at ground level, you can climb up to the rafters, you can steal through the classic and unavoidable vents. There always seems to be more than one possibility, and I love that, it really makes you feel more like some kind of ninja, planning out your own stealthy passage across the level. Better yet is the way everything seems to interconnect. If you, like me, explore the majority of the levels in search of the collectibles then you will find that many of the routes you take may turn you around and put you back into other areas you have already been through, its actually rather excellent.
Another aspect of the game I like is that it does seem to make it clear that you can play how you want to. The game gives you the option of sneaking through each mission undetected, killing no-one and collecting all the collectibles along the way, but the only benefit of doing so is a bit of extra experience at the end of the level. Experience is used to upgrade the few abilities and items you do have and, for the most part, they seem pretty pointless. So, really, you are entirely free to ignore those end-of-mission awards and just do whatever you fucking please.
Of course, the downside to this is that if you are at all like me (I.e. completely psychotic) then you might allow yourself to go through the first mission killing everyone you want, but after that you think “you know what, I should try and do a mission without alerting anyone” And then you might find yourself thinking “well, you know what, how about I do that, and now I don’t kill anyone… AND I collect all the coins?” And let me tell you… Never have I saved to regularly in my entire life… I’m so inordinately proud of actually achieving this in one mission that I’m actually going to brag about it right here and now:
Good stealth aside there are other issues with the game which become apparent as time goes on. For one thing the AI do have that tendency of stealth-game AIs to be a little bit hopeless when it comes to finding you, sometimes staring right at you or being right next to you but unable to find you because you are in the shadows. The other thing to note about the various mooks patrolling the place is that a lot of them do not really give that impression of a living world which can be so important for immersion in some games. The vast majority follow only their patrols, do not interact with one-another (except for a very few scripted pieces) and are simply happy to travel along their rails as long as they remain unaware of your presence. This is most noticeable when you come into contact with “roabies” which are essentially gigantic mutated beetles, which for some reason will only attack you and will completely ignore the dozens of humans around them. Which is a shame because I would have thought that luring guards into a “dangerous animal” trap was practically stealth game 101.
Another thing which actually is particularly bothersome are the shadows themselves. Styx lights up when he is “in shadow” this makes him very difficult for the AI to see him unless they are practically right on top of him, and allows him a little breathing space to wander across open rooms as long as he remains in that darkness. The issue then comes about that the “shadow” itself actually is not a particularly low level of lighting, but rather areas of comparatively low lighting. This might mean that in an underground level where the majority of it is fairly dark and dingy only the darkest parts of it are actually “shadows” whilst the rest are considered to be “lit”. Meanwhile the opposite holds true in brightly lit, daytime levels where the shadows are merely those areas slightly darker than the rest of the area, these same areas which might be considered to be “lit” in the darker levels. It can be a little confusing at times and can lead to you being spotted in inconvenient places if you aren’t carefully paying attention to Styx’s tattoos, being spotted while crawling over what ought to be a darkly lit and high-up series of beams is a little galling to say the least.
A final point is that the story of the game really isn’t particularly compelling, but on the bright side of this is that Styx actually is a somewhat interesting character. He’s not another brooding Batman style character (which I understand was a big complaint about Garrett in the Thief reboot) but rather a complete anti-hero. He’s a scumbag and totally okay with that, and its actually quite good.
This isn’t what we come for though. Styx ought to reel you in and keep you entertained for a fair amount of time on the strength of its gameplay alone, and is definitely a fairly stand-out stealth game, which is all the more impressive considering its humble origins.
P.s. It should be noted that having tried to play with a keyboard and mouse combo and then switching over to an Xbox controller, Styx is pretty damned clunky and difficult using the keyboard. It is a game made for the analog sticks of a controller.