Master of Shadows, But Jack of Everything Else
Styx: Master of Shadows is the brand new Stealth RPG from Cyanide Studios set in the same world as 2012’s Of Orcs and Men, though taking place long before the story of that game. You play the titular role of Styx, an expert goblin thief as he tries to break into the deepest parts of the heavily guarded human tower of Akenash and steal the heart of the World-Tree. Styx is definitely a master of stealth, but is the rest of the game up to such lofty titles?
It feels a bit silly to knock a stealth-based game for its combat, but that’s the main problem I have with Cyanide’s latest. The stealth mechanics of Styx are some of the best you’ll find in the genre, and in many ways this game is a far greater example of what makes stealth games addictive and engaging than this year’s disappointing Thief reboot. But nothing is more frustrating in Styx’s adventure than its combat. I get that the fighting is not the core attraction, so in a way maybe Cyanide wished for us to have trouble combatting the game’s guards. But I’m of the belief that good design can still be difficult without making you frustrated. The controls and limited choices of combat in Styx keep the game from being a truly enthralling experience.
When you’re engaged by a guard who catches you sneaking around, you’re immediately locked into combat with him. You can strafe and dodge around him in a circle, and thankfully if two or more catch you only one will strike you at a time. You can’t escape combat, you can’t run off and try to evade them, you either fight and win or you die and try again. This wouldn’t be entirely bad if combat wasn’t little more than countering your opponent at the right time and striking back. That’s it. There’s nothing else to it other than good timing. Now, this alone is not bad, but given Styx’s propensity for stealth and acrobatics, it seems a damned shame that I can’t drop a smoke bomb and run off to find someplace to hide.
That said everything but the combat in Styx works well to really let you take advantage of the world and the many tools the devs put in your hands. Closets can be hidden in, tables can be used as cover, and you can even pop out of chests to surprise and kill an enemy. You have limited invisibility, a clone you can puke up and use to distract guards and “Amber” vision that uses the drug-like sap of the World Tree to let Styx see in a sort of “hack-mode” to help plan routes throughout each map. You can pick up sand scattered around the Tower to throw at torches from afar and create areas of darkness to skulk in. You can climb just about anything and everything as you silently make your way through the Tower of Akenash. It’s a good thing the guards rarely look up.
The guards themselves are fairly stupid, and unless you’re locked into combat, they’re not really a danger to you. But on more than one occasion, after alerting them to my presence they surprised me by stopping to check inside of a chest I was hiding in, or a barrel. So while they may not see you when you’re clearly standing in their periphery, they are pretty adept trackers when notified that you’re around. It’s hard to say that Assassin’s Creed or Shadow of Mordor do stealth better, as they might just make it easier on the player. In a lot of ways Styx is a hardcore stealth fan’s ideal game. There’s even a “Goblin” difficulty setting that makes getting caught mean almost certain death, thereby making real use of the stealth and all of Styx’s many tools that much more important.
Visually, the game has a fantastic Fable-esque style, building upon the RPG Of Orcs and Men from 2012. Its animations and overall polish might be limited by Cyanide’s indie budget, but I’m really betting we’ll see more than a few purveyors of obscure cosplay dressing as Styx at next year’s conventions. The goblin was Of Orcs and Men’s standout character, and it’s nice to see him get his own game. The fact that he’s drug-addicted to the Amber of the World-Tree, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia brought on by his addiction, and that he has no idea where he came from as the world’s first goblin makes him an oddly likeable and relatable anti-hero. He’s not out for some canned revenge. He simply wants the voices to stop, and to find out where his origins lie.
If there’s one thing aside from the combat I would have liked to see go further, it’s the RPG elements. Styx has several paths of character progression to work on, from stealth to combat prowess and his goblin powers as well. But the upgrades only come between missions at a hideout, when it would have been very helpful to upgrade a skill or power midway through a mission. Additionally, some of the skills just don’t really have much an impact on the overall game, but you might find yourself upgrading them to get to something that seems more attractive down the line.
Nonetheless, despite its shortcomings, Styx: Master of Shadows is an enjoyable hardcore stealth game with the light trappings of its RPG forebear. At $30 and offering around 15-20 hours of sneaky goodness, if you can overlook the poor combat and budget animations, chances are you’ll find a lot to like in Styx. The PC port controls are actually solid, though I still wound up playing the game mostly on the 360 controller, mainly because it was more comfortable. Just keep in mind there’s a reason he’s called the Master of Shadows, not the Master of Fighting, and you’ll likely be very pleased with your purchase.
- Gameplay – 7: Solid stealth mechanics make up for lackluster combat and RPG elements.
- Visuals – 8: The Unreal 3 engine lifts up an otherwise last-gen looking title.
- Polish – 6: Combat, voice-acting, and some odd graphical glitches keep this score down in the middle of the road.
- Longevity – 7: There are a ton of ways to approach each mission, but chances are you’ll still only play through the game once.
- Value – 8: At $30, Styx is half the price of most games, and more enjoyable than 2014’s Thief reboot.