October is turning out to be quite the month for the gaming community. With a handful of big name releases like Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, The Evil Within, and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, it’s understandable that the average consumer might get a bad case of tunnel vision when it comes down to what they’re going to play. And while I myself plan on spending an embarrassing amount of time on all three of these, I ask everyone to shoot a passing glance towards a smaller voice in the crowd, namely, Cyanide Studio’s Styx: Master of Shadows, a stealth prequel to the same studio’s 2012 RPG, Of Orcs and Men.
As the story goes, Styx, the first Goblin ever (guess you’re mom was right to call you special), must devise a plan to steal the mysterious “Heart of the World Tree”, set deep within the confines of the verges-on-steampunk Tower of Akenash. While strung out on the tree’s power-granting amber, Styx must deal with corrupt officials, racial tensions, and his own sordid origin as he struggles to recover the invaluable Heart. As the plot progresses you may find yourself lost in the enigma that is Styx’s family line, but while it’s not a creative masterpiece and the twist is a bit cheesy (sounds like a Dominos appetizer), it’s enough of a story to hold the game together in a cohesive and motivating manner.
Advertising itself as a sneak/infiltration game, Styx offers an interesting variety of interactive stealth elements. Hiding under tables and desks, putting out torches with spitballs, and seeking refuge in vases and manholes are among the many options available to avoid detection. The game does a great job of weaving the environment into the actual gameplay, and you’ll learn to appreciate the small things, like landing on carpets to quiet your fall or knocking over chairs to distract guards. Actions reminiscent of previous stealth titans, such as looking through keyholes or hiding bodies, are also available, and while lacking in creativity, they certainly add substance to the gameplay.
Alongside a gruesome dagger and a few throwing knives, Styx employs several different powers to increase his sneaking odds. Fueled by the precious, yet highly addictive, amber, you can harness the power of invisibility, enhanced vision (much like Assassins Creed), and cloning, with the last of these obviously being the most awesome. Puking up a clone allows Styx to distract guards, open up doors previously unavailable, or throw together a two-man dance party. It’s a clever mechanic that makes sneaking much more versatile, while only slightly touching upon the ethical quagmire that surrounds self-duplication (and subsequent duplication elimination…or suicide by proxy?).
Each map, crafted with a decent amount of detail and just slightly above-average graphics, was designed with a Point A to Point B objective in mind, and though this may be limiting in terms of exploration, there are enough alternate routes to keep it interesting during a first run. One of the game’s massive faux pas is the fact that almost every map gets reused, only during the second go around you’re playing it in reverse. Even though they do their best to freshen it up with a rearrangement of guards or obstacles, it’s still blatantly clear that you’re doing the exact same thing you did an hour ago, as if you’re retracing your steps to find the car keys the morning after a sweet party. Ultimately, this is enough to kill the prospect of a second playthrough, because by the time you finish you’ve already seen the game twice over.
It could be argued that a major component of stealth games is the ability to choose your level of sneakiness. Unless pertinent to the mission objective, games like Splinter Cell, Dishonored, and Assassins Creed allow you to be as subtle as a shadow or as violent as a tornado made of wasps and cheese graters, and this appeals to a large crowd because everyone can find their own style. Sadly, this is not the case for Styx. While there are tons of options to enhance the sneaking experience, the game flagrantly ignores your ability to just run through a level, knifing fools left and right, and if anything, punishes you for even thinking that way in the first place. If you happen to get caught in the open, you’re sucked into a painfully boring attack-parry-riposte sequence (unless of course you’re playing “Goblin Mode”, in which case you just get murdered), and Styx’s lack of armor or resistance to sharp objects quickly drains your health. While the point of the game is to sneak, and even though the stealth kills and mechanics are great (if not a bit drawn out), the fact that the game all but slaps you in the face if you do anything the least bit stealthy is going to turn away quite a few players.
I found a few clipping errors and one glitch, which I came to rather enjoy, where changing the difficulty setting mid game would cause certain enemies to just follow me around instead of attack me, like some kind of mall security guard who was unsure as to whether or not he was allowed to hit me for shoplifting. The lack of any type of zoom, combined with a tethered third-person camera orientation, sometimes proved difficult when trying to spot alternate routes through a map, but the overabundance of different paths more than made up for such a trifling inconvenience. As is the Achilles Heel in many stealth games, the enemy AI in Styx was limited and predictable. Being alerted to the possibility of your presence only resulted in the guards searching for a few seconds before returning to a very rigid patrol, regardless of whether or not I decided to hide a body or not (it could also be that none of the guards like each other, and thus don’t quite care who I knife).
The assortment of perks that can be unlocked falls under the separate categories of sneaking, killing, powers, and a couple others, and while each subset has four perks available, most of them are unnecessary or not all that useful (minus killing people from above, I absolutely love drop-knifing wandering sentries). Consumables such as health and Amber potions, throwing knives, and bottles of acid are somewhat scarce throughout the game, positively increasing the difficulty without making it downright impossible, and Styx’s aforementioned low amount of health conveys a sense of urgent self-preservation unseen in games with rapid or automatic healing.
As a decent game with a certain level of potential, Styx: Master of Shadows unfortunately runs the risk of not getting the attention it might otherwise deserve as it releases in between the arrival of a handful of A-list titles. The lack of playstyle choice and the repeated use of maps throughout the game do it no favors, and are only slightly offset by the decent stealth capabilities and novel cloning power. And while the environment is well crafted and the voice acting is decent, the graphics are still a sizable step behind modern big-brand titles. It’s an overall decent game for the price, but it simply doesn’t bring enough to the table to keep the players hooked.