If you’ve been looking for the Deadpool of stealth games, get your wallet ready.
Because Styx not only mocks every other classic franchise in the genre, it takes great pride and pleasure in breaking the fourth wall and poking and prodding you at every turn.
Sequel to the 2014 sleeper hit, Master of Shadows, the goblin master thief has returned in Shards of Darkness with a brand new engine, co-operative mode and enemies as well as improved mechanics and narrative.
This is a proper, full-on upgrade in every sense of the word. It’s funnier, there are better production values, the handling feels tighter and more responsive, there’s much more going on in the game. It honestly has everything going for it.
Once again developed by Cyanide, Styx finds himself trapped in a whirlwind adventure – once again set about due to his greed – which sees him visit a Dark Elven City and strike an unlikely and uneasy alliance with a human officer called Helledryn who is in charge of a taskforce who arrest talking goblins. Sounds exactly like the kind of person he should be trusting.
But the rewards are – of course – too tempting to resist, being a stack of Amber which is the source of Styx’s power. This is used to power his unique abilities – like creating and controlling clones – and his Amber Vision which allows him to see the heat signatures of enemies, as well as useful objects in the world.
It’s immediately obvious that Shards of Darkness has been built differently to its predecessor as this feels like more of a stealth-focused world. There’s plenty of dark, shadowy spaces for you to hide in, as well as tight spaces to crawl through and alternative pathways to reach your destination. You can choose to ignore your enemies – instead, focus on their patrols and work around them – poison their food when they’re not looking, or murderously stab them while their back is turned.
You can even run along rooftops and shimmy along ledges only to drop down on an unsuspecting adversary.
But there’s always options available to you. Some missions provide several options to fulfil your quest objectives. Sometimes you’ll have to change your strategy if you’ve accidentally triggered an alarm or someone has spotted you. For instance, one mission sees you try to sneak onto a zeppelin in order to get your hands on some spoils, but in order to do so, you have to stow away in a chest that’s about to be loaded onto it. If you’re seen, you’ll need to run to the nearest exit point and rethink everything.
Dishonored 2 really showed the way for an effective narrative in stealth games and while Styx never reaches the lofty heights set by Arkane Studios, it’s tongue-in-cheek nature and hard-hitting fantasy setting work well to give the lead more personality than most. Some things the goblin says will make you cringe, others you’ll chuckle, but no matter what, he is effective at keeping your attention. And for any game, that’s half the battle won.
To link back to the Deadpool comparison, the goblin really comes into his own during the death screens. At which point, he is surprisingly hyper-energetic. He’ll mock the player with quips like ‘you realise you won’t get an achievement by using the controller with your feet, right?’ and jests by asking the player ‘Maybe you’d like me to control the game and you come in here and die instead?’
And when he’s not belittling you, he’s making sneaky digs at Assassin’s Creed and Thief and just about every other stealth-em-up ever made, asking things like ‘where’s the conveniently placed bale of hay to cushion my fall?’ when running across rooftops. Movement across high ground is made easier using grappling hooks, cranes and dangling ropes, and you’ll really feel the tension when leaping between areas
Styx can lay traps for his enemies and create distractions using clones. He can also turn invisible and walk between patrolling mobs, amidst other abilities that can be upgraded and built up between missions at Styx’s hideout. He can also change costumes, equip different weapons, and even craft arrows and potions during, after, and before each mission.
Styx also boasts a rather unique, and well-executed co-op mode which reminds me a bit of the Splinter Cell Conviction co-op campaign. It’s well put together with one person controlling Styx and the other, his clone, during various different stories which also relates to the main narrative.
Admittedly, my time with the co-op is limited and will also not be fully accurate when I publish this review due to a Day One Patch being released. But we’ll add to this post-launch to give some further thoughts on what’s available.
Styx is a good, solid game. There’s longevity and replayability here, the story is quite entertaining, it all plays really well and it certainly looks the part. And for the most part, it’s not competing with much else in the genre even though March has proven to be ridiculously competitive for new games.
But, still, I almost feel like Styx would have been better served waiting a few weeks for release because it’s almost certainly going to get lost in the ridiculous shuffle that has been Q1 2017. And it doesn’t deserve to because there’s so much to like here. Sure, the death screen repetition does become a bit grating and some of the sections, even on easy, are more difficult than they should be. Mostly because enemy reactions are overly sensitive or you spawn at a checkpoint right in the heart of danger.
I did also find that it’s easy to tumble and slip off the environment in some missions due to over sensitivity of controls and the parrying in combat to be more frustrating than its worth persisting with.
But nitpicking aside, Styx is a mostly enjoyable ride from start to finish and while it will never match the sheer majesty of a Dishonored 2, it certainly more than holds it own against a rebooted Thief.
+ Good writing and characterisation
+ Unreal Engine 4 looks beautiful
+ Nice mission variety
+ Co-op is shaping up to be a major selling point
– Repetition in dialogue is grating
– Control sensitivity makes experience feel a bit lightweight
– Parrying doesn’t work very well.
– Enemy sensitivity is occasionally too much