Fans of traditional stealth-based games have had a rough go of it over the past few years. Genre stalwarts such as Splinter Cell and Hitman have embraced more action-oriented gameplay, while former critical darling Thief returned with a flop earlier this year. This has left developers such as Arkane Studios (Dishonored) and The Creative Assembly (Alien: Isolation) with the opportunity to pick up the slack. Now, another developer, Cyanide Studios, is looking to make a name for themselves in the genre as well with their latest effort, Styx: Master of Shadows.
A spinoff of the 2012 RPG, Of Orcs and Men, Styx centers around the titular goblin thief. The first of his kind, Styx wants to steal the Heart of the World Tree. which is located in a massive building known as the Tower of Akenash. Besides the fact that stealing such an item would lead him to a small fortune, the heart also produces a substance known as Amber, which is quite desirable to our goblin friend. After being imprisoned in the tower, however, Styx has trouble remembering exactly how he is going to pull this caper off. Of course, this will certainly not deter him, and his quest to the Heart will lead to fractured alliances as well as questions about his past.
I’m going to be honest with you right now: I had no idea that this was a spinoff of another franchise until about a week before it was released. No offense to Cyanide Studios and their previous effort, I just never had a chance to experience the title. However, I kind of wish I did prior to playing this, as I rather enjoyed the tale of Styx. Despite his ugly appearance, he’s full of snarky charm, and the story throws enough twists at you to keep things interesting throughout.
As mentioned earlier, Styx: Master of Shadows is a hardcore stealth title. This means that unlike your Hitmans and Splinter Cells, you can’t run in and fight everyone hands on. Doing that is an easy way to end up dead on the floor. Rather, our hero must use his small body, agility, and cunningness in order to to overcome the massive amount of guards located in the Tower of Akenash. This means that you will spend as much time sneaking under tables and snuffing out torches, as you are going to spend taking out unsuspecting guards and servants.
Luckily, Styx has more than just his wits and miniscule strength to get by with. The amber, that precious liquid he is looking for, is also running through his body in small amounts. For the player, we see it alongside his back, which helps indicate when he is hidden in the shadows. The intoxicating beverage also grants him several magic powers, albeit ones that drain his limited magic meter. These helpful powers include Amber Vision, which highlights guards and collectibles hidden in the environment, the ability to cloak himself for a brief amount of time, and the opportunity to unleash a clone of himself out into the world. The clone is probably the most helpful of the abilities, as it can open doors and cause distractions, although it can’t actually kill anyone. It’s also a major tax on the already limited amount of amber you hold, so you need to be smart with it.
However, since these abilities are held in such limited supply, you’ll need to rely mostly on manipulating the environments in order to survive. This is one of the areas where I feel Styx really shines, as the levels, despite being somewhat similar looking at times, are vast and fun to play around in. With the environments being so big, it opens the gameplay up in a more vertical direction, similar to something like Assassin’s Creed. Each level is also littered with objects that can either benefit you, such as rugs that soften footsteps, or hinder you, like buckets and mops that can’t be touched. These are nice little touches that help make the game world feel slightly more realistic. As realistic as a game starring a snarky goblin can be, I suppose.
Styx: Master of Shadows is not without some irritating issues, though. Jumping, in particular, was frustrating to deal with, as it feels a little too floaty for a game that places such emphasis on stealth. All too often I would find myself missing jumps I should have nailed, which either led to me falling to my death or falling to the ground and causing a ruckus. Dealing with ledges was also a nightmare at times, as all too often Styx would climb up a ledge when I needed him to just hang there. This, of course, would lead to me getting killed over and over again.
The other major issue I had with the title, and one that I feel a little bad about ragging on, is the clunky combat engine. As I mentioned before, combat with Styx is not something you want to engage in, as he is physically weak. So instead of being able to strike enemies freely, the combat engine is based around countering and parrying. Unfortunately, this rarely works as well as Cyanide Studios would have liked it to, as the countering system never feels right and trying to properly time a counter is not worth the effort. Things get even more frustrating once orcs come into play, as their ability to one-hit kill you, alongside their large detection range, leads to a ton of frustration. Again, I feel bad about complaining about the combat engine, because it’s something you should avoid engaging in, but it would have been nice if it was a little more user friendly.
Even with such an unsightly protagonist, Styx: Master of Shadows is a surprisingly nice title to look at. Taking full use of the well-worn Unreal Engine 3, Cyanide Studios really made sure each environment looked the best it could. Dynamic lighting, unique architecture and countless bits of detail are the main highlights of the fantasy-set world. The character models are a bit more of a mixed bag, although they do fit their environment. Certain character models tend to be seen a few times during the course of the campaign and the design of Styx is one of the few that truly sticks out.
The musical score of the title is equally impressive, as Henri Pierre Pellegrin’s music fits the mood created by Cyanide Studios. The music tends to be somber and slow while Styx creeps around the Tower of Akenash, with it picking up when you are spotted or in battle. The dialogue was also another highlight, as not only does our hero get in his fair share of memorable quotes, but the guards themselves tend to be rather humorous. Finding out more on these awful individuals goes a long way towards giving the title even more life.
Coming into Styx: Master of Shadows, I wasn’t sure what I would be getting. Cyanide Studios had been known more for obscure sports titles (Le Tour de France, Blood Bowl) and disappointing adaptations (Game of Thrones) than anything else, so it was hard to get a good grasp on their skills. However, after walking away from this incredibly impressive package, I’m excited to see if the studio can build on its formula.
This review was based off the Xbox One version of the title, which we were provided with.
Despite some wonky mechanics and frustrating gameplay, Styx: Master of Shadows is an excellent throwback to the glory days of the stealth genre.