Developers: Cyanide Studio
Publishers: Focus Home Interactive
Cyanide are rather busy of late. As well as readying a sequel to the Warhammer spinoff Blood Bowl, the studio are also hard at work on another spinoff title, this time in the world previously explored in Of Orcs and Men.
The recently announced Styx: Master of Shadows refers to the eponymous protagonist of the piece -- a goblin two centuries old, and the side kick to the orc Arkhail in the previous game.This is a world of traditional fantasy turn upside-down, where mankind has a lots to answer for as the races of Orcs and Goblins are trodden underfoot -- the former captured and enslaved, and the latter mercilessly persecuted.
Where Arkhail was large and lumbering and brutally strong, however, Styx is light, acrobatic, and nimble. A master thief and assassin, this game see him infiltrating the giant Tower of Akenash -- an intricately laid-out fortress built by the humans to protect a great tree that provides a substance called Amber. Think of Amber as Mana, and you wouldn't be far off, with the orangey substance proving to be the source of Elven magical power. Styx, the first of his kind, and full of questions as to the origins of the Goblin race is eager to sneak through the Tower and uncover the secrets of the Amber tree.
There are a number of things about the setup that impressed me, even in this early build. The first was how open everything seemed to be. Cyanide have built the Tower, it seems, as a sprawling dungeon of opportunity, filled with different paths for Styx to reach his objectives. Chatting after the presentation (you can watch the 25-minute Styx walkthrough here), lead level designer Julien Desourteaux asked me what I'd thought of the game and I told him that it instantly brought to mind titles such as the original Thief series and the older Hitman games.
"Blood Money definitely!" he exclaimed. "Not Absolution."
But on a technical level, perhaps the most impressive thing is the fluidity to Styx's movements, especially when it comes to taking cover. I praised Tomb Raider for its dynamic cover system, which worked fantastically most of the time and removed the irritation that can come from having a cover system that's a little too sticky, especially in games where movement is key. But even in that game, there were moments when the system failed and became imprecise. Styx: Master of Shadows, however, uses the right trigger to make moving between speedy traversal and stealthy slinking a thing of fluid beauty -- at least it seemed that way to this observer. The fleet-footed Goblin can take cover behind most objects of a decent height, and he can also hide under tables, in cupboards and chests, and use such storage places for hiding the unconscious and the dead.
Aerial backstabs and assassinations from cover are in, and there are plenty of opportunities too for contextual takedowns. An unfortunate guard pauses for a moment underneath a chandelier and Desourteaux has Styx drop the whole thing on the guard's head. Noise will attract attention, as will unnatural sights and other things that should not be. Tripping a guard's yellow alert is rather easy, and some assassination moves are noisier than others. Speed can be useful, but running creates noise, and it won't be long before you attract interest. Yellow is the base level, though -- a curiosity alert more than anything else. Orange will encourage guards to investigate the disturbance, and red basically means you're in danger, reinforcements are coming, and you'd better act fast.
Light plays a part in all of this, and Styx can extinguish the fiery torches on the walls to make an area easier to slip through. When he's in the shadows, his armour will glow to visually inform the player that they're hidden. But it doesn't make Styx completely invisible (*cough* Dishonored), and although the darkness will give you more time and space, you still can't let enemies get too close. Guards will often patrol in pairs, and if you kill one, the other will come looking for you. AI patrol paths are also susceptible to change, with occasional random elements such as a guard pausing in front of a fire to warm his hands, breaking up sequences, and giving you an opportunity to strike.
There's a risk-reward aspect to the violence in the game as well. The allure of being a silent assassin is there for all to see, and being super stealthy will yield more rewards and experience with which to expand Styx's range of abilities. But leaving guards alive might prove problematic later on. One such example that Desourteaux showed us demonstrated how being merciful led to a group of enemies going to meet the lift we'd just called down, making our escape path much more difficult.
The Amber helps, though. Styx can take advantage of the orange sticky stuff to do a number of things. The first is a sort of Eagle Vision overlay that reveals enemy positions and scalable surfaces, mapping out areas that Styx can reach and helping players plot a path. Amber can also be used to spawn a clone that can be directly controlled to cause distractions, explode in a cloud of helpful smoke, or flip switches and navigate through the Tower's puzzles. Styx can even use it to turn himself invisible for a precious few seconds, but it doesn't last long at all, and eats up Amber, which is not exactly plentiful in this game. One nice twist is that you can steal vials of Amber from soldiers and guards, but if you kill them and they fall, the Amber jars will break and become useless. As the completely fabricated adage goes -- make sure you pickpocket your victims first, then murder them.
Styx, then, is a game that has our attention. Cyanide have been a little hit and miss in the past, but this is a game that looks very promising indeed, if only for the foundations upon which it's being built. If the developers can make the Tower a continuously challenging place to be that doesn't get stale, they're onto a real winner. The fluidity of the movement and slipping between cover, married to impressive level design (at least in this demo) and well-worked enemy AI, makes for a game that has us rather excited indeed. But can Cyanide sustain that over an entire game and make the whole experience compelling?
Time will tell.