Styx: Shards of Darkness Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Microsoft Xbox One
Following on from the rather maligned Styx: Master of Shadows, the latest outing for the titular goblin master thief, Styx: Shards of Darkness, had a lot of room to improve on things. The previous installment failed on much that is key for a good stealth-focused, story-driven adventure, making for a forgettable experience. There are certainly some big improvements, with a much truer feel to the world thanks to improved graphics and textures as well as much needed tweaks to gameplay. But some issues remain, and Styx: Shards of Darkness crosses the line between being a good challenge to being annoying just a bit too often.
The game continues the series’ previous themes, with the abrasive and callous goblin, Styx, sneaking and stealing his way through dark, traditional sword ’n’ sorcery flavoured levels over nine missions. Styx: Shards of Darkness splits its time mostly between the thief den of Thoben and the grand elven land of Korrangar, exploring the different districts and sanctuaries of both cities. The game has made notable visual improvements and the locations look good and solid and build up a very believable, if unremarkable, setting in a traditional art style familiar to fans of Fable or World of Warcraft. The lighting in the game is similarly impressive and atmospheric, if rather sparse. The darkness occasionally grew very thick which was great for sneaking around unseen, but would also lead to awkward moments with Styx falling into an endless chasm where it might have been assumed a path would be.
Despite that particular pitfall, the level design is well implemented in producing a solid stealth challenge. Areas come with the standard boxes and bannisters to provide plenty of hiding spaces and there is lots of room above and below for alternative routes and approaches. There’s a feeling of openness to the world of Styx: Shards of Darkness which gives the game a nice variety in terms of problem solving. Each level is busy with nooks, crannies, crawl spaces and cover to wind your way along a choice of various routes A and B. You can peek through doors to ensure your entrance or exit will go unnoticed, drop chandeliers to distract or dispose of passing guards and booby-trap alarms to make your escape from trouble that much easier.
And trouble is certainly never far away. Each level of Styx: Shards of Darkness is filled with a procession of fantasy favourites. Dwarfs, elves, and trolls all turn up alongside the more run-of-the-mill human militia as well as other, wild beasties along the way, and each offers a slightly different challenge. Dwarfs will sniff you out if you get too close, beetle-like Roabies have incredible hearing, and trolls will pound you into the dirt in an instant. These form quite a formidable obstacle to overcome, requiring clever use of the various skills available to you. Most of these are carried over from Master of Shadows. You can, once again, make use of amber vision - similar to Batman’s detective vision from the Arkham series - to keep track of foes and spot supplies and handholds. Styx can also make use of the magical substance, amber, to either spew out a clone of himself to cause distractions or to simply turn himself invisible for a few seconds in order to get yourself out of a jam. These can all be developed through the skill tree. This has been streamlined since the last outing to just five sections, letting you improve your stealth, alchemy, fighting perception or clone’s abilities. Improving these abilities is vital as the levels add more and more difficult barriers to block your path that require much more than sneaking and thrown vases to get beyond.
For more aggressive players, Styx has a set of bolts to fire from the shadows or a dagger if at closer range. The goblin can also lay acid traps to instantly eliminate and dispose of trouble or poison food and water supplies by, once again, spewing his guts and waiting for the hapless guard to stop by in his patrol. Beyond these tricks, though, Styx is somewhat limited in direct action and, as a diminutive goblin armed only with a dagger and a bag of tricks, discretion is certainly your best bet. Combat in the game is virtually non-existent, aside from perfectly timing a parry to an enemy's strike and taking advantage of the brief unguarded moments to strike or, more sensibly, flee. This reinforces the strict stealth focus that Cyanide clearly favours for Styx: Shards of Darkness, and they have certainly assembled a set of strong levels to feel truly sneaky in as you pinch valuables from underneath a table and strike down an unwitting guard silently from the shadows.
The game also aims to set a real, tough challenge at the same time, but misses the mark in a few areas. With levels being quite open and contiguous and areas getting quite crowded, knowledge of your presence will quickly spread should you be discovered. Standing in the face of multiple guards is suicide, especially as they get more heavily armoured later in the game, and even running and hiding can prove difficult as you attract more attention from a zone full of enemies who will hunt you down very thoroughly. Styx: Shards of Darkness at least improves on the previous edition by making it easier to break from direct combat and running, but because literally every person in each level is armed and out to get you, it proves difficult to get enough distance and find an effective hiding hole to wait out an alert. More often than not, being spotted is just a cue to load up a previous save.
Obviously, many of these skills require supplies, and Styx: Shards of Darkness includes, as so many modern games do, a crafting system to supply you with bolts, health potions and projectile clones to help you along your way. These are constructed using supplies picked up from each level, and you are sure to find something in any building you enter and search. But there are a few issues in balancing this system. Firstly, some supplies are more common than others. Spores and insect eggs were found all over the place but the raw amber and iron ore needed for the game’s more useful items were, perhaps unsurprisingly, in short supply. Searching for these collectables also seemed counter-intuitive to the wider game, as going about the place hunting for iron would inevitably lead you to cross paths with more guards and put you at greater risk. You are also on a timer, with quick completion times, as well as going undetected and not killing guards, generating more experience points to spend on skills at the end of each level. This leaves you with the inclination to just collect as you make your way to the objective and hope you get lucky, but this approach typically leaves you short of supplies come the bigger obstacles in the game. In the end, the whole mechanic feels a little tacked on and scruffy, getting in the way of you being a true master thief.
Unfortunately, the problems don’t stop there. As much as the game is well constructed and offers a good stealth challenge, the components are all ones you’ll find in almost every other stealth game and leaves Styx: Shards of Darkness feeling a little unimaginative. The setting promises much with its visuals but then doesn’t offer any new edge to fantasy worlds that we have seen before. Elves are tall and mysterious, dwarfs are short and are forever mentioning ale. The levels in Thoben are all giant crates and thatched buildings, whilst the Korangar levels are fairly similar to any great elven city you can imagine. There are taverns and libraries and a port town and eventually it feels like you could be playing a new, fantasy-setting twist on bingo. Not helping issues are a few clunky or sluggish elements in the controls left over from Master of Shadows. Jumping from handhold to handhold is still clumsy. It is a trial lining up each leap without springing out into open air to your death. Amber vision offers little help as you climb, only showing particular gripping points and entirely missing out any ledges in the rocks, which are the harder thing to see. Ropes also cause a few problems. Ziplining requires an additional button press which only works after Styx has settled into place, often leaving you a sitting duck in an attempt to flee. Moving from a rope to a ledge is laborious and swinging looks and feels awkward as you try to manoeuvre Styx into a jump. Survival in Styx: Shards of Darkness relies on good movement, so this lack of fluidity can be a real hindrance to what is otherwise challenging yet balanced gameplay.
And, despite the mechanical hiccups, there is a solid game here with some very interesting moments. Sneaking about a bath-house and hiding amongst the steam felt like a real feat of espionage. Making a mid-air crossing between airships in order to steal something from a heavily guarded locked room is what stealth games should always be doing. The moments when movement felt fluid and exciting happened just as much as the points getting stuck trying to climb a wall and the feeling of tension as you just about keep out of the vision of a patrolling guard made Styx: Shards of Darkness an enjoyable challenge. There was the odd miss on level design. Having to carry an unconscious ship captain back to his boat right out in the open in broad daylight without being able to use any skills or even jump without putting the guy down was excruciating. For the most part though, each mission provided a great, old-fashioned challenge that worked hard to recreate the feel of the original Thief games, where slow and stealthy is often the most rewarding course.
The story behind the actual gameplay is, however, garbage. It is far too clear that writing was an afterthought, added on to give some token context to the action in each level. The game starts with Styx in the middle of a heist. Once the loot is handed in, however, he is cornered by members of C.A.R.N.A.G.E., a militia group dedicated to eradicating goblins for some reason. For some other, stranger reason, the captain of this group, Helledryn, is not out for Styx’s blood but, in fact, wishes to hire him to steal a sceptre from an ambassador’s airship. You reach this MacGuffin, only to have it snatched from you by a sinister dark elf leading you to attempt to break into the nigh impenetrable elven city and infiltrate a highly secure diplomatic meeting to find out what he’s up to. You eventually discover shady doings revolving around a powerful mineral and the hunt and capture of an entire species for nefarious purposes: Styx’s fellow, but more feral, goblins. But, along the way, there are a fair few gaps that require a lot of work on the player’s part to account for. Styx’s motivation to chase after the dark elf seems unlikely, the hatred towards goblins is at odds with their depiction as small, cowardly creatures and the ending is about as bad as endings get. Towards the end, a main member of the supporting cast simply disappears, never to be seen or heard from again and their role is just filled by another in what was presumably meant as a big twist but, thanks to the game failing on delivery, just ends up feeling like filling in for a voice actor not being unavailable. No part of the story really hangs around long enough to hook you in, and the result is a patchwork story that, on occasion, pushes for some serious tones, but which is undermined not only by the holes in the cohesion but, also, by the main character and his sense of humour.
This is another troubled element of Styx: Shards of Darkness. For all the dark tones in a shadowy, fantasy world, the game attempts a style of fourth wall breaking with pop culture references, usually punctuated with expletives. This is most acutely shown in the death cinematics, where Styx will emerge from the mists to berate you or make awkward jokes at you. These will, more than likely, hit home with some people, but this copying of Deadpool in a game that was, otherwise, quite serious in tone tended to jar more than it amused. Making crude fun at the expense of the player, the other characters or the setting as a whole will only get you so far. References to American Pie and Assassin’s Creed do not help Styx: Shards of Darkness get any further. Whilst there was the odd laugh, it just felt unusual to go from quite disturbing revelations in a fantasy world to seeing yet another parody of the thumbs up from Terminator 2. And this resulting character plays a big role in undermining the wider story. Clearly, there are serious developments emerging in the world Styx inhabits. But, the utter apathy of the main character, even in the face of a horrifying big reveal, spreads to the player and you just stop caring, carrying on with a shrug of the shoulders as you get ready for the next level.
So much about Styx: Shards of Darkness should have been great. Challenging stealth courses, a classic setting to play with and interesting mechanics to utilise. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of cohesion and some rather lazy humour that leaves this game with a lot of lost potential. There is fun to be had with some nice, well put together missions but a real dud of a story mixed with some real hair-pulling control issues means that this falls short of some of the alternative stealth-based games that are out there.