Styx, the Master of Shadows, is a goblin. To be precise he is the first goblin. In a fantasy world made up of elves and humans, Styx is there to rob them blind. Taken prisoner and forced to escape incarceration so he can steal the heart of a big underground tree – which the humans keep locked up and which the elves need the sap of to grow in – Styx travels through the world with stealth avoiding enemies and trying not to succumb to the overwhelming chances of death that surround him, whilst dealing with short term memory loss as to his supporting characters and what his plan was.
Sounds good? Maybe. But the game has done absolutely nothing to sell me in to that fiction, nor has it given me a gameplay system that I can enjoy in the meantime. I’m not particularly great at stealthy games and the lack of playing styles within the game definitely reflects that hole in my gaming ability. But I’m not taking out my frustration at the game due to my lack of skill. No, sadly, the game hasn’t reached something that I consider to be enjoyably challenging. It didn’t help that I was flummoxed for a few moments as the game told me to “Press Cross Button”, which I then realised was actually the X button. Lost in translation? Maybe, but there’s more to my conclusion than a simple case of incorrect terminology.
I’ll tackle the storyline first because the amnesiac trope doesn’t really get me going. In a game where you have started to lose your mind but can ably remember how to jump with confidence from beam to beam, pick locks, kill people and are able to use some fairly complex magic (I’m guessing it’s magic) to help your situations, it really holds no weight to give the character convenient memory loss. Of course it’s a cliche dynamic to help you get invested in Styx and explore this world but after a short time playing the game, this element of the story is completely unimportant to you as a player because everything else about it will begin to frustrate you. Its cutscenes suffer from poor animation and lip syncing, which you might forget or not notice as after the initial scenes, still drawings with voice overs for memory sequences and background plot information. These drawings are so colourful and vibrant compared to the games dull, dungeon inspired palette that they stick out quite badly. Not quite as bad as the lip syncing during the in game cutscene sequences though when they occur. The passiveness of the faces of every character, including Styx, and poor syncing make for a forgettable time where you should be enjoying/learning plot. Something about bootleg drugs them making Styx telepathic… It doesn’t help that Styx appears to be American at times with a hint of Joe Pesci and everyone else is either a poor impression of the Oliver Twist style working class Britons or upper class governmental types. As much as I don’t mind a Dickensian cast this game doesn’t really benefit from it, especially as the dialogue either never changes or has very limited random bits of speech. It also doesn’t help that the game can’t decide if it’s humorous, dark or just fairly innocuous. So it adds occasional curse words to be edgy and a few one liners with the same amount of panache as a football pundit trying to drop a pun in to commentary.
It is a shame because, as a redeemable quality, the idea behind the worlds and dungeons is good and graphically, the game is pretty good as well with some nice lighting dynamics and interesting settings. Before they become too repetitive that is. Everything interconnecting to your hideout and the slight puzzle solving element gives a nice feel to the bigger picture and it had the potential to make you part of a situation and give you a grounding in the world. But the design is such that after the second or third trip through a level it becomes utterly repetitive, whether you’ve died a lot or are retracing yourself. The placement of health/amber potions and useful items are too few and far between and at times it seems that the one path (there are different options but it kind of ends up as a “all roads lead to Rome” style of design) you can take will eventually end up with you finding a fight. Which makes using cover, a key component in stealth games, fairly useless, although the cover itself isn’t particularly useful anyway, especially if you’ve been spotted. The great idea in the levels to go up as opposed to across everywhere gives you more of a stealth gymnastics vibe at times and as a gameplay mechanic it is very well utilised and enjoyable if you don’t fall to your doom repeatedly. You can see the inspiration of Assassins Creed in the scope of the art but it is sadly lacking in the end. Big scope is great but a fairly bland view with that scope is just showing where the idea hasn’t progressed fully to the finished product.
This world itself is utterly confusing because, despite it being a fantasy based game, it has no idea exactly what genre it is in. The mystical amber substance, which seems to be as close a combination between heroin and that drug from the movie Limitless as you can get, grants you certain abilities that, whilst presumably magical, probably owe more to complex genetic engineering. As a plot device it’s like a cross between a decent psychotropic Phillip K. Dick story and if the movie version of that story was butchered by Mel Gibson – possibly interesting but pointless in practice. The clone system (you can summon a clone of yourself), which is very useful as a scout party and getting in to nooks and crannies for mission progression, is hilariously implausible in the genre. The fact that when you are in the shadows and hidden, the game tells you this by giving a large portion of your body a luminous fluorescent orange glow is incredibly ridiculous for a stealth game. Although you can also make yourself invisible for an annoyingly short period of time. This lack of clear set universe parameters, especially as they are fairly unexplained in the outset, makes the game feel quite jagged and, much like Destiny, offers up some story that you instantly switch off from due to lack of setting to ground yourself in.
Problems in the gameplay start with the game being a “stealth or die” kind of game. We’ve had many great stealth game franchises over the years including Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid, Hitman, the aforementioned Assassins Creed, and you could even include the recent Thief game in that. But in those games, despite the stealth element being paramount, you are able to smash your way out of a situation if it becomes tricky or overrun, or even hide easily. Styx is quite similar in that way to Manhunt except that Styx’s combat is almost non-existent. It is there so you can sneak up on people and murder them to get to your objective. Trying to fight basically means quick death and further repeating of the level (Advice: Save Frequently). There are fighting elements but these are all completely obscured by the fact that any fight you haven’t initiated can take up to ten seconds of parrying the opponents attack before you can kill them, but the AI will come in their droves within five seconds to defend their mate and kill you. Hiding as well is pretty tricky due to there being a lack of places to hide when you really need them and the AI pretty quickly finding you in those situations too.
Those aren’t the only problems. You cannot run from a fight really aside from dodging and rolling away, even on normal difficulty. You can dodge and parry, even kill, which is fine for a one on one battle. But if you’ve found that kind of battle then well done to you. Most battles involve two or more people being alerted and you being unable to defend yourself from the other two cronies stabbing you as the game locks you in to a singular battle. This becomes a far too common situation and problem as you play against the slicing idiots.
And they are idiots. The AI is awful. Both as an easily fooled obstacle to navigate past and as one who doesn’t see a lot or sees you from too far away and flash mobs you. They become pretty droll rather quickly and even when they introduce the weird blind bugs which I couldn’t seem to fight, they still don’t have a lot of challenge to them overall if there’s a long way around you can use. In fact, one thing with the gameplay that made it more fun for me, and much more enjoyable as a game, was to see how fast I could run through the level. As a redeeming feature, playing the game in the opposite way it has been designed isn’t a good one. But it did make for more fun progression and less of an environmental bore. You can get a lot of help from the Skill Tree but it’ll take you a good few hours to make any meaningful progression in to it and the fact that you can only upgrade yourself at your hideout (at the end of each level) will leave you probably 100 meters from the next upgrade for numerous deaths.
There are a few things that could have brought this up a few notches. There are 3 execution animations which happen randomly. I’d certainly prefer more of them and I’m sure I’ve got enough buttons on my PS4 controller to be able to choose them. The levels could have been a bit snappier and Styx himself is a pretty cool Goblin. I’d even have taken more than two weapons in the entire game and I’d certainly up the amount of potions and throwing knives that you can carry (two is by far not enough). Ultimately Styx just falls short of enjoyable. It’s a game you can certainly play if you really love stealth games but for what it looked like and what the introductory six minute cutscene teased, it is a bit of a damp squib of a game and if it is part of a bigger universe and plan then there’s a lot of ground to make up for Styx to become an interesting proposition.
Styx: Master of Shadows is a stealth game that is clunky in its mechanics, lacking in any story engagement and has a poor combat system. Which sadly eclipses the good work of the idea behind the world and occasionally interesting takes on level design, making it challenging in the unenjoyable way.
– Nice graphics and lighting
– Can present a challenge at times
– Satisfying when you finally pull off a perfect level
– Awful dialogue/lip syncing
– Terrible combat system
– Repetitive settings and poor AI
Why a 5/10?
Styx tried to be an engaging character stuck in a strange position of item liberation whilst fighting human oppression of the elves in their uneasy alliance. But the game behind Styx just isn’t good enough to carry the good points of the game to fruition.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game.