Styx: Shards of Darkness is an outrageously difficult stealth game with hidden depths, for those with the nerve to slip into them.
I don't profess to be a great gamer, just one who likes games a lot and writes about them. There is a lot to appreciate in Styx: Shards of Darkness, though I confess to you in advance, my performance in this stealth game wasn't great.
Fans of developer Cyanide's first Styx game, Master of Shadows, will notice an improvement in graphics after being made on the Unreal 4 Engine. This brings deep color and deeper shadows, which are all the better for hiding in. The great thing about the main character, Styx, is that you get a good sense of his personality just from his design. The squinty eyes, the large mouth, long arms, you know this guy is a swarthy wiseguy from the start. The tutorial opening level will put almost anyone through the paces, and even after dialing the difficulty to the Discovery level (a.k.a. easy) the game was still challenging.
In this sequel, you play as Styx, who is still the only talking Goblin living in the city slum of Thoben. He's making his living doing shady deals, pilfering, infiltrating, and occasionally murdering. Because of the influx of Goblins, C.A.R.N.A.G.E is set up to eradicate them, and for the sake of amber, the magical substance that charges the Goblins powers, he teams up with a band of the same group who are out to kill him and his kind ...
The aim of the game is to skulk about the levels on your little goblin legs, collecting items for crafting and fulfilling smaller side missions for extra skill points, but remain unseen while doing so.
The not so sneaky explorer
I'm an offensive player, run-and-gun. Shoot first, think later! So, Styx: Shards of Darkness was perhaps one of the harder games I could play to earn my stealthy sea legs. The aim of the game is to skulk about the levels on your little goblin legs, collecting items for crafting and fulfilling smaller side missions for extra skill points, but remain unseen while doing so. Pressing "B" puts Styx into a crouch where he will make less sound when he walks, but touching into chairs and vases may cause them to fall over or break, making noise that will alert nearby guards to your presence. These can be avoided by taking in your surroundings in Amber Vision, the Goblin power that highlights items of use. Pressing in the right stick allows you to see any items in the immediate area that you can collect in yellow, enemies and their direction of view in red, as well as ropes or items you can climb on in gold. Items that make a noise show up on the screen as blue, so you'll know in advance which ones to avoid while traversing the area.
At first, I played this game strictly inside the box. I was too hung up on being an offensive player to fully appreciate quite how stealthy I had to be in order to have an easier time. I know, it sounds stupid, but I'm stupid. Rather than hiding in barrels and waiting until someone walked past before I popped out and quietly stabbing them in the back, it was way quicker to just largely ignore the guards and use the shadows to my advantage. Once I got into that frame of mind, I began seeking out the darkest paths in the area, and there were so much more than I had initially thought. The gradual poke of exploration and progress served me well, as I got to know the levels and the guards' routines. A big help during these "getting to know you" hours was the D-pad quicksave function. If I thought I was about to try something risky, a quick hit on Right on the D-pad, to quicksave, ensured I wasn't going to have to waddle and stumble my way halfway back through the shadows of the level again.
There are many ways to tackle a mission, of which there are eight after the tutorial. The mission is set over a large level, with waypoints to guide you. How you get to those places is up to you. Styx is still able to produce and control clones, so you could puke one out and send him to go and detach some cargo onto a sleeping guard below while you sneak behind another guard distracted by the chaos. You may slip in and out of windows, through secret passageways below floors or on the beams above a room full of guards. I've hung off the sides of railings and hopped past as a guard wandered by, completely oblivious.
Hiding the evidence
If you do happen to accidentally (or on purpose kill) a guard, there are a number of methods to remove the evidence. You could hide them in a chest or cupboard, which are also very good for hiding yourself if you're glimpsed. I've pushed guards off of balconies and walkways into the water below (and got an achievement for it!), and also poured acid over a lifeless corpse just as another guard was walking around the corner. I managed to get out of that unseen by accidentally/on purpose killing in the shadows. Constant vigilance! One method I cannot recommend, however, is dropping them guards of cliffs or walkways while you're holding them. Too often I fell with them after positioning myself too precariously. Upon release, the animation moves Styx forward a few frames, toppling him into the water, too.
Unfortunately, to begin with, I got into a lot of altercations with guards, and they pack a hell of a sword slice. Even worse is being cornered by more than one, as there is almost no way to take them all on. You can parry attacks, but it's best to do this one on one, not while you're having knives thrown at you by one guy while another guard drastically tries to shorten your body. Styx can take a few blows, but after taking damage across the level, you might not always be riding at the height of full health. Since you're not really supposed to be swashbuckling with swords anyway I feel like Styx is purposefully weak in this area to dissuade players like me from taking the path that I tried to take: the offensive, stab-first, think-later path.
Styx feels purposefully weak in combat to dissuade players from taking the path that I tried to take: the offensive, stab-first, think-later path.
Even though I was having a frustrating time, and despite being mildly annoyed by Styx's Game Over taunts, which were charming and riotous at first but grew thin quite quickly, I really enjoyed it. It pushed me to start thinking outside the box, and I loved that I started playing it better. I had to turn my brightness almost all the way up, because the game was so dark at the default setting, I was missing a lot of waypoints and staircases. I just couldn't see them. Turning it up a few notches doesn't bleach out the game, which has happened in others.
Styx as a character is likable enough, if you like your characters rough and foul-mouthed. He spits cult classic quotes and will tear you a new one for dying so often. However, part of that is down to less-than-perfect jumping and ledge grabbing mechanics. Early on in the game, Styx mentions Tarzan as you swing him on a rope. Tarzan? More like Tumble dryer. Maneuvering Styx on a rope wasn't easy. Trying to get momentum by pushing the stick back and forth in your preferred direction of travel just made him switch which side he was swinging from, which really sucked as I jumped off the wrong way for the third time in a row to my death.
After getting into the swing of things, Styx: Shards of Darkness was really enjoyable. While Styx's jokes may run dry, the wealth of game and the many approaches to the levels makes this game superior to its predecessor and one of the more enjoyable stealth games I've played from a character angle.
- The Sense of humor will suit most adult players.
- Fiendishly difficult.
- Enormous level designs.
- Styx's game-over taunts repeat themselves too often, making them tiresome to hear.
- Some platforming mechanics don't work as well as they could.
In some ways, Styx: Shards of Darkness felt as Stockholm-Syndrome-inducingly difficult as Dark Souls, with the frequent deaths, taunts, and preference for evasion over confrontation. But that made me like it even more.
Reviewer disclaimer: This reviewer was provided a code on Xbox One by the developer.