Styx: Master of Shadows (PC)

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Tuesday, November 4, 2014

There have been plenty of video games incorporating stealth mechanics over the last few years, but quite a few of them have used it as one possible play style rather than the definitive one. Pure stealth titles where sneakiness is the player’s only option has been much rarer, which is why Styx: Master of Shadows caught my attention when it was first announced. This new title from Cyanide Studios places the emphasis solely on sneaking and remaining undetected, and it acts as a prequel for the Styx character from 2012’s Of Orcs and Men. It may be a bit rough around the edges, but the large environments and variety of abilities granted to the player make this one an enjoyable experience, provided you’re the type of gamer who likes sticking to the shadows rather than direct confrontation.

Styx takes places in the Tower of Akenash, which is a gigantic structure built around the World-Tree. Humans and elves originally formed an alliance and built the tower, which is essentially a giant fortress floating in the sky. At the beginning of the game players are introduced to both the scale of Akenash and the characters they will be following throughout the story, as Styx finds himself captured by Governor Barimen’s men. Initially much of the plot is told through flashbacks, as Barimen and his son Aaron interrogate Styx as to what he is doing lurking about the Tower and the game then transitions over to let the player control these past events. The initial goal is to steal the Heart of the World Tree for reasons that are unclear, but as you progress through the game you become embroiled in much larger events. Styx may initially be set on a goal simply for his own personal achievement, but there’s tension between the humans and elves that seems to suggest the possibility of war, and he finds himself pulled into the middle of everything.

As you might expect, stealing the Heart of the Tree is no easy feat and early on Styx doesn’t even have an idea of where he would have to go to find it. After escaping to a hideout following the introductory mission, players are introduced to Ozkan, a blind man who has been aiding Styx by providing him with information and hidden items in exchange for certain tasks that must be completed. The hideout serves as a hub of sorts, and allows players to replay any mission they’ve already beaten, upgrade their skills, and restock on items. It’s an efficient way of tying the six missions Cyanide has provided together, and gives players a bit of a breather from the tension of the stealth gameplay. You’re going to need these slight pauses too, as the game is fairly unforgiving and you always have to be planning out your next move.

Styx: Master of Shadows is all about stealth, and unlike in some of the other recent games that have incorporated this as a gameplay device you can’t really brute force your way out if you mess up. You control the goblin through a third person perspective, though when you go into tight spaces the game switches over to first person. As Styx is smaller in stature, he is able to hide under tables or fit into smaller tunnels, which prevents more hiding places than players may be initially expecting. There is also an emphasis on verticality, as each of the levels is gigantic and it is often encouraged to head up to greater heights to bypass enemies and discover new routes. Areas that can be climbed are marked with a cross, and by using “Styx Vision” players can see more of these hidden paths as well as highlight exactly where guards may be patrolling.

What I like the most about this title is the way that it gives players plenty of ways to deal with challenges. Missions have a tendency to start you off with a primary and secondary objective marked way off in the distance, and it is up to you to figure out how you want to make it there and handle the patrols and other obstacles standing in your way. It’s possible to stick to the shadows and plan out your routes carefully, completely avoiding detection and leaving all of the enemies alive. If that isn’t your style, you can choose to methodically clear rooms of enemies, hiding their bodies along the way as you perform stealth kills. There often isn’t a set way to reach your goal, and that does encourage some replay value for those that enjoy fully exploring the environments and trying out new methods.

Should you choose to play as the murderous type like I did though, you’ll discover that a little ways into the game Cyanide throws some curveballs your way. On the easier difficulties, if you get caught by an enemy and they get close to you this triggers a combat sequence. Styx becomes locked on to the enemy, and you must press a button at the exact moment they attack to parry their blow. Perform this successfully a few times and you can kill the enemy. However, this is the least preferred way to take out guards as not only is it easy to screw up the timing and be killed fairly quickly, but if any other enemies are in the immediate vicinity they can attack you while you’re stuck in combat. You’ll learn fairly quickly that this can lead to almost instant death, and while it may bother some people I like that Cyanide purposefully designed direct combat in a way that discourages its use. If you choose to play Goblin mode, which has been designed for hardcore stealth fans, parrying is disabled and you can only take out enemies through stealth kills. The difficulty can be changed at any time during gameplay, and if you decide that you don’t want indicators showing if guards are in alert status or waypoints leading you to your objective those can be turned off as well.

Another curveball the developers throw at you is the variety of enemy types. As someone that played the earlier missions as a methodical killing machine that stalked enemies and took them out one at a time, it seemed like the game might become too easy. But this ended up not being the case, as there are additional enemies introduced that can’t be taken out in this manner. In addition to the regular human guards, there are heavily armored knights that will kill Styx in one hit if they discover him and they can’t be stealth killed. Instead, you must either avoid them or find alternative ways to kill them such as sending a chandelier crashing down or poisoning nearby food or water. This prevents an extra challenge, and keeps you on your toes as you progress through the levels. There are also mutated cockroaches that are blind but can hear the slightest movement (and they come in packs), ghostly skulls that will chase you down and explode on impact, and elves. Elves in this game are downright creepy, as they can smell you, so you have to keep your distance or they’ll instantly track you down while saying that you’ll never escape from them. I enjoyed the challenge the variation of enemies presented, though the skulls and cockroaches often led to frustration and the sections where they were featured weren’t nearly as fun to play through.

Styx has plenty of abilities at his disposal to deal with these challenges, and you’ll need to make use of them to progress. As I mentioned earlier, at your hideout you can upgrade skills and you gain skill points by completing missions and completing primary and secondary objectives. There is a wide range of skills that can be learned, ranging from decreased noise when landing from jumps to aerial kills that allow you to take an enemy by surprise. My recommendation is that you decide how you want to play the game and then focus on a particular skill tree, as there are ones built for sneaking by undetected and others oriented more towards becoming a murdering machine. Everything in the in-game world revolves around amber, which the humans and elves have harvested from the tree, and Styx can use various amber infused powers. In addition to the Styx Vision, he can create clones for a brief period of time to access otherwise unreachable areas and distract guards, and become invisible. All of these powers use up your amber gauge, and you must find vials of the substance to replenish it. There are other useful items scattered throughout the game world as well, such as acid that instantly dissolves bodies or throwing knives that can take out guards from a distance.

Even with all of these tools at your disposal, Styx is not an easy game. Part of that is due to the nature of the experience, while some of it is due to some technical issues that I will discuss in a bit. It’s recommended that you save often, as one wrong move can completely ruin your planned route through a level and lead you straight to your death. There are a few puzzles that cause instant death if you fail, and it’s also easy to mistime a jump and plummet to your death during the platforming segments. Thankfully in addition to auto saves at key checkpoints you can also save the game at any time as long as you haven’t been spotted or are in the middle of a puzzle, and the load times are fairly short, making it easy to jump right back into where you left off. Playing through Styx is exhilarating, as there is a real sense of tension as you sneak past the guards in total darkness, fully aware that all of the enemies can easily overpower you. The sense of scale that is present in each level also adds to the experience, as these levels are gigantic and are often split up into three to four parts which makes each mission take a couple of hours. It took me about 20 hours to beat the game, and that was without completing all the secondary objectives or trying to get insignias, which are bonuses earned for finishing missions in specific ways.

The core mechanics are solid and Styx is fun to play, but as you get further into it the flaws start to become apparent. One of the biggest is the inconsistency of the artificial intelligence. The game promises dynamic encounters, and it is able to achieve this at times. Enemies typically have fixed patrol routes, and if they haven’t been alarmed you can hide under tables or other objects and they won’t see you. Once they’ve been alerted their AI becomes more dynamic and they will look under objects and up towards the ceiling to see if they can spot you. When this works it creates a tense version of hide and seek, but some glitches keep things from going quite as they should. Sometimes the routes seem just a bit too robotic, and enemies have a tendency to go into alert status once they’ve found a body, eventually give up the search, and then walk over to the body again as if it’s the first time they’re seeing it. I’ve also noticed some hilarious glitches that had enemy bodies flailing through walls, and guards that walked straight into a wall or got stuck on another person that had crossed their path. These are all fairly minor details, but they happen often enough that they pull you out of the experience and remind you that this is in fact a game.

For a title that places a significant emphasis on platforming, the mechanics feel a bit imprecise at times and this is likely to lead to frustration. Styx has a tendency to make it across some gaps with relative ease and plummet to his death trying to make it over ones that look to be about the same distance. It’s hard to predict whether you’ll actually be able to make a jump or not, and I’ve also had him not stick to the crosses in the walls that he should be able to. Ledges are also a cause for concern, and while Cyanide did improve the ledge detection with a patch there are still some areas where it seems like you should be able to hang off the edge but instead fall off to your death. It’s also worth mentioning that unless you hold the jump button you will pull yourself up from a ledge automatically instead of hanging from it, often exposing yourself to guards in the process. I never found myself getting stuck for very long, but the unpredictability of the platforming mechanics was a regular cause for frustration. Finally, despite the initial wow factor of the large environments, halfway in a major plot twist happens and then you must make your way through all of the levels you just explored in reverse. While the size of the areas makes it hard to tell this is the case at first, it’s a bit disappointing to discover that the scope of the title is only half of what it initially hints at.

Cyanide has used the Unreal Engine to bring the Tower of Akenash to life, and while it isn’t quite the most detailed game on the market the art design and scale of the world makes for some breathtaking moments. When you get up close to certain objects the textures aren’t quite as detailed, but the character models have a decent amount of detail and there are plenty of sights to take in. After you’ve climbed up to the highest point of a level and are taking in the scenery it looks fantastic, and the darker, grittier fantasy world that the developers have created is enticing. There’s a real sense of grime to Akenash, and amber acts as a drug of sorts that just about everyone is hooked on. You’ll often stumble upon conversations where guards are trying to barter amber, and see a guard throw up from what looks like withdrawal. There’s a seedier side to this fantasy world that isn’t quite as common in video games, and it did leave an impression on me. However, as with the other elements of the game there are glitches present with the graphics. Everything runs smoothly and the framerate is consistent, but you’ll notice occasional white flashes on textures as the game tries to load additional objects. In addition to this, clipping is a major issue. When you have Styx cling to an environment for cover, it’s typical to see his arm or dagger go right through the object. The same is true for dead bodies, as I’ve put them against a wall and watched half the body fall right through it. There’s a consistent rough around the edges feel when it comes to the graphics in the game, and while nothing is downright bad it does sometimes seem like this is an element that could have used just a little bit more polish.

The same type of grit that is present in the graphical style comes through in the audio as well. Dialogue has a tendency to be towards the saltier side, as not only does Styx curse quite a bit but you’ll hear the guards say all types of vulgarities as well. It fits the style that Cyanide is going for, though there are some lines of dialogue that are just a bit too silly and truly cringe worthy. Voice acting is generally an area that the game does well, as the actor for Styx delivers a convincing performance as an anti-hero. There is a bit too much repeated dialogue over the course of the game, particularly when it comes to banter between guards, but this was a minor issue. Background music tends to be fairly subdued, and I actually had to go back and play a mission to jog my memory as to whether the game actually had any or not. You’re often so focused on the action on-screen that the music doesn’t even register in your brain, though the sound effects certainly will with their bone cracking and gruesome death noises.

It’s not quite a must have title, and there are some elements that are rather rough around the edges, but Styx: Master of Shadows is still an engaging stealth game. Cyanide has crafted a darker fantasy world that has some real dirt and grime to it, and it was fun to explore every inch of it while figuring out how to efficiently evade patrols and take out enemies silently. Hardcore fans of the genre are sure to appreciate the Goblin mode and ability to turn the HUD off, and for the $30 price point there is enough content here to justify a purchase. Previous games that Cyanide has developed have had a tendency to be fairly hit or miss, so this one comes as a pleasant surprise and is likely to be a sleeper hit for some.
Styx: Master of Shadows on Green Man Gaming

Styx: Master of Shadows

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