Like the sly goblin their game is based around (and named for), Cyanide Studios’ Styx franchise has been unseen and hidden to many. The franchise, if you’re unfamiliar with it, spawns from the action-fantasy RPG Of Orcs and Men, which was followed by its 2014 prequel, Styx: Master of Shadows. The new game to the franchise, titled Styx: Shards of Darkness, again has us fall into the shoes of the stealthy Goblin Styx, navigating, stealing and throat-slashing his way through intelligently-designed open levels with fun, sneakiness and tools at your availability. This enjoyment does stumble, however, as a few unpolished elements mar its mostly pleasant stealth experience.
Despite taking place in mostly horrible locations such as caverns, shanty towns and castles, Shards of Darkness is oddly charming in the visual department. Its world gives off Warhammer fantasy vibes offset by a mix of chuckle-worthy or face-palm-inducing humour sprinkled throughout its mostly dark story. Styx is likable for the most part, and a refreshing archetype for a protagonist if you’re new to the series. You’re not a charming swashbuckler or smuggler, though: you’re a foul mouthed little green goblin that fits perfectly in this cruel and grim world. You’ll either hate this humour or roll with it; it’s not for everyone. The plot here emphasises more on the world-building that Of Orcs and Men established back in 2012, but never did I feel totally lost or feel the need that I had to understand the previous games. It just means if you like Styx, there is a whole lot more story out there for you to explore.
What is easily enjoyable, however, are the levels set in this world that you’ll navigate Styx through. They’re extremely varied, from goblin-filled shanty towns, dwarven fortresses and floating air ships that hover thousands of feet above the ground. Each of these levels is entirely open for you to explore, meaning completing your goals is never shoe-horned to one narrow direction. The worlds are much more vertical than previous designs in Master of Shadows. Styx is able to climb, swing and leap on nearly everything he can see. It’s usually a tremendous asset to a game that encourages scenarios that can be tackled from different angles, but unfortunately, Styx’s jumping and swinging doesn’t feel as responsive and as fluid as his other movements. This is a real bummer, as movement in Shards of Darkness is key; its first and foremost a stealth game and requires you at all times to remain unseen. On the ground, though, Styx is a joy to handle. He slips in and out of shadows smoothly and feels exactly as he should, like a tiny, sneaky goblin. It’s also great playing such a small character, as slinking under tables, hiding in baskets, chests, crates and squeezing through numerous other tights spots is a breeze, and really makes you feel like the devious little git you are.
Like the game before it, combat is most definitely not the priority here in Styx: Shards of Darkness. Stealth is the name of the game, and Styx has more than just his dagger at his disposal. Environmental objects, sounds, poisons and even manipulation of light itself is what you’ll use to distract, kill and avoid detection. It’s here where Styx really shines; it’s a true stealth game that strips you of a brute force option and makes you think. Many other games of the stealth genre, like Dishonored, still supply the player with a more action-based route, but not Styx. If you don’t stealth, you will die over and over. Again, Styx is a master of deceit, and a new addition to Shards of Darkness is a much-improved skill tree full of handy abilities for Styx to use. These abilities are equally as fun and practical to use, and really change up how you approach scenarios as you advance through the game. Styx can literally vomit out a goblin ally, go invisible or again vomit into water supplies to poison enemy guards. (Goblins must have something for puke and bile. Who knew.) If you do happen to be seen and attacked by a guard, Styx has a single chance to avoid death, but it’s not so easy to pull off. Styx must parry and counter-attack at the right time in order to survive being spotted by a guard.
AI in Styx: Shards of Darkness is also a large issue that hinders its overall experience. AI seems to have very skewed fields of view, often clipping through items and generally acting pretty brainless. I tried to see if this wasn’t the case at higher difficulties, but guards continued to run into each other like a slap comedy skit. I do, however, recommend you turn the difficulty up if you want a true stealth experience; it will make Styx vulnerable to guard’s attacks, cause fatality in a single blow and slightly increase how perceptive the AI is.
Shards of Darkness does have differing enemy types, especially in the later parts of the games, but they all still ultimately play out the same way. Simply sneak past and avoid them at all costs, and you’ll be fine. Dwarves can smell you if you approach too close, and elves wear special armor that makes them un-killable by dagger. I would have loved to see a greater variety here that would challenge my tactics later in the game, but instead it feels the challenge of the game hits a wall three-quarters of the way through.
Styx: Shards of Darkness does offer up a co-op multiplayer mode in which I had limited hands-on experience. Syncing kills and watching my co-op partner skitter along the rooftops with me was actually a really cool experience, and I loved the feeling of being a part of this small green assassin squad skulking the shadows with deadly intent.
Shards of Darkness is run by the Unreal Engine 4, and I was really impressed by its visuals on the PC. It’s not the best-looking game I’ve played this year, but its dark, shadow-drenched aesthetic is more detailed than one would imagine. NPC models’ faces are more on the rougher side, however.
Styx: Shards of Darkness may be unpolished in some aspects, but is ultimately a genuine stealth game that really emphasises thought and deception more than most stealth games on the market. AI issues, lack of replay value and rigid control shortcomings don’t totally snuff the light out on Shards of Darkness, but they hinder its potential of being a jewel of a game in the stealth action genre. If you’re a stealth fan, check this game out. If not, this might not totally be your title.