Platforms: PC (reviewed) | PS4 | Xbox One
Developer: Cyanide Studio
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
I've been waiting for this game forever. One of the most under-appreciated American rock bands of the late 70s finally has a videogame of their own, complete with legendary tunes like Mr. Roboto, Renegade and Come Sail Away. Styx are awesome and it's about time too. Here's hoping for a Foreigner tie-in next...
...oh. Turns out that Styx: Master Of Shadows is actually a dark fantasy stealth game from Cyanide Studios.
Initial disappointment aside, this is still a remarkable turn of events. See, Styx is a real stealth game. Not an action game in Solid Snake's clothing, but a proper honest-to-goodness cold-blooded sneaky stabby treacherous quickloading brutally tense little experience that understands what the genre is all about, even if it doesn't always quite hit the mark.
The story, as is so often the case with non-licensed Cyanide games, is a load of old cobblers. We find ourselves controlling a goblin thief named Styx who has to steal the "Heart Of The World Tree" from the "Atrium Of Akenash," which boils down to a multi-stage heist set in a fairly generic fantasy castle where everyone speaks in a terrible ye olde Englishe accent (as if Cyanide's casting director just stopped outside the Fable auditions and stuffed all the failures into a van, then concussed them for good measure). Just to further annoy, it's presented in medias res with the good old amnesia trope.
This should be terrible, and in fairness it is, but somehow manages to hold together thanks to Styx himself. An interesting backstory, left-field humour and superb voice acting makes him genuinely fun to be around. "When I step into a lion's den... it's to f*ck a lion." Outstanding. It's actually enough to keep you invested in the tale, and provides an excuse to keep the story moving and push our goblin master thief on to tougher and more difficult infiltration missions, while operating out of a central set in the tower's disgusting sewer network.
Typically each zone plonks you down in an enormous sprawling map full of guards, knights, bowmen, orcs, disgusting sound-sensitive cockroaches and other hazards, then shows you where the objective is and lets you get on with it. Levels almost always offer a large number of alternate routes to reach your destination, including hidden tunnels, lofty exterior architecture studded with handholds, platforms, pipework and numerous dark catacombs stuffed with optional secrets, relics and secondary assassination objectives. Effectively most stages are sandboxes, and Styx has an awful lot of toys to play with.
As a goblin, Styx is a nimble little protagonist, possessing the ability to jump and climb his way through environments, grapple ledges, skulk behind cover and commit a variety of vicious stealth kills. He's a little like a foul-mouthed diminutive green Ezio, but Assassin's Creed fans might be quickly surprised to discover that stealth, not action, is king here. Fragile and tiny, Styx is more suited to hiding and scampering away than a stand-up fight, using his small stature to automatically duck under desks and tables in first person to elude capture and break line of sight. A simple binary 'visible' vs 'invisible' stealth system uses an arm tattoo as a visual indicator,effectively informing you whether or not you're in the shadows.
Once you've learned the ropes, you can go to town. Guards can be distracted out of position with a quick whistle, then evaded or brutally murdered. Chandeliers can be cut and sent crashing down, causing distractions or brutal "accidents." Light sources can be extinguished at range. Enemies can be pickpocketed. Throwing knives can dispatch unwary opponents, or corpses even thrown onto lower levels to bring guards running. Corpses can be stashed into cupboards or melted with acid. There are always multiple options at your disposal.
It gets better. Styx' addiction to a magical substance known as Amber allows him to access Eagle Vision (by any other name), turn invisible for very short periods in order to evade capture, or summon a clone that can distract enemies, access tunnels or even perform kills of their own when upgraded. Every encounter becomes a puzzle in and of itself, allowing you to solve it in multiple methods depending on your tastes and limited resources.
The combat is profoundly awful. If engaged by an enemy, you're thrown into a horrible clunky little rhythm game that forces you to perfectly parry incoming blows while open to attacks from other foes in the area. It's primitive, clumsy, hateful and therefore absolutely perfect. Remember, this is a stealth game, so combat is a failure state rather than a viable option. You're encouraged to stay hidden to stay alive, both due to brutal difficulty that requires you to maintain a fastidious saving regimen, but also with unlockable insignia for completing stages without killing anyone or being detected, alongside optional missions and hidden items. All of this then factors back into a skill system that lets you improve your core abilities with situational new upgrades.
So Styx is a very good stealth game in a number of respects. Unfortunately, there's a case to be made that it's also not a very good game in more general respects.
Styx will certainly last you a while, with a first playthrough taking somewhere around 15-20 hours depending on how many times you screw you up and how diligent you are when it comes to the sidequests. It's almost churlish to criticise, but this sometimes feels too long and even padded, with tedium sometimes threatening to settle in during yet another long infiltration against similar enemies. We also have to ding Styx for perpetrating instant-failure stealth from time to time, which occasionally rears its ugly head due to scripted sections or certain enemies that can kill you with a single hit. It doesn't happen as frequently as in some genre offenders, but even once is too much in our opinion.
Production values are also sorely lacking. We've mentioned the voice acting, but the graphics are similarly inconsistent, betrayed by lacklustre texturework, awkward animations, glitches, weird clipping issues and collision problems. Most of these complaints are minor and cosmetic, and some may be addressed in the release build, but frankly, it feels very much like a second-string title. These production values also affect the controls, which make dismounting to a ledge horribly difficult, and can see you accidentally falling to your death when you were convinced that you could make a jump.
The AI also isn't anything to write home about. Gormless when idle, guards will typically perform a short search or doggedly pursue you while in vision range (making up for a lack of intelligence with impressive health and accuracy), mill around in hilariously unrealistic fashion, but then quickly give up and forget all about you if you find a hiding place. This can be annoying and totally immersion-breaking, especially when coupled with poor animations and crude character models, but personally I'd argue that the feeling of being smarter and superior to your enemies is an important part of the stealth experience.
And that's rather the point. Styx may not be the complete package, but it does enough right to call itself a decent stealth game in all its tough, freeform, punishing, low-budget and often frustrating glory. The budget price seals the deal, since £24.99 won't break the bank, and is cheap enough for me to recommend it to a core fanbase of patient and forgiving genre fans.
- Sprawling levels with multiple routes and objectives
- Some versatile and enjoyable stealth mechanics
- Brutal old-school stealth gameplay
- Graphically underwhelming, shocking production values at times
- Forgettable dark fantasy twaddle and terrible voice acting (apart from Styx himself!)
- Can be very frustrating; many deaths stem from control issues or instant-fail sections
The Short Version: Styx: Master Of Shadows is a proper old-school sneak'em up that harks back to the tough and rewarding heyday of the stealth genre, but the production values don't come close to matching the ambition. Thanks to its budget price, enormous sandbox levels and fun stealth mechanics, I can still recommend this shonky yet endearing little game to patient fans of sneaking, stabbing and pressing F9 every few seconds.
6 – CAPABLE: The key thing to remember here is always try before you buy. There'll likely be some rather glaring flaws, but games that earn a 6 will generally be very capable indeed and probably still provide a good deal of fun to genre fans.