Sneak, sneak, sneak. Stab, stab, stab. Get detected by a guard. Try to fight off said guard. Guard has friends. Die. 80% of your time in Styx: Master of Shadows will follow this general series of events. That’s assuming you follow my play-style of methodically killing every possible guard that you can.
But perhaps you’re a lover, not a fighter (or in this sense, merely a thief, not an assassin), and you want to get by utilizing only the arts of distraction and super-stealthiness. Well, kudos to you and your Buddha-esque patience, but remember those guards you didn’t kill? Each are an extra pair of eyes to detect you with and they will detect you.
In Styx: Master of Shadows, you play the titular character Styx, who is a goblin (and someone you will recognize if you’ve played previous Cyanide Studio games) imbued with a magical essence called “amber” that gives him magical powers like invisibility and a special “amber vision” (imagine eagle vision from Assassin’s Creed, but where everything becomes yellow). It also happens to give him the side-effect of voices in his head telling him to go to the “world tree,” the source of the amber which happens to be located inside a heavily fortified “Tower of Akenash”, along with giving him headaches and poor memory recollection.
The plot isn’t exactly awe-inspiring and most of the exposition happens in the really drawn out opening cutscene, which eventually devolves into pictures, as opposed to actually animated scenes. In it some unmemorable governor fellow and his goons manage to capture Styx and have him divulge his whole plan to them which, in hindsight, wasn’t a particularly good move for Styx. Certainly not a story to write home about, but you weren’t planning to buy this $25 game to be entertained by the tales you were going to see and hear now, were you?
Styx: Master of Shadows is not an easy game. It is not a forgiving game. As someone who has been spoilt by the Assassin’s Creed series, jumping into Styx was like getting hit in the face with a big, wet, slippery fish with rough and tough scales. Not 5 minutes in, I accidentally walked off the ledge that I was standing on and fell to my death. This was quite unexpected, as games like Assassin’s Creed would not just let you walk off a ledge like that. They would put up invisible rails so that your character would stick to the ledge until you forced your character off with a leap or some other action.
The atmosphere really does remind me of Amnesia
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Nobody likes excessive hand holding and Styx: Master of Shadows definitely doesn’t provide you anywhere near the amount of hand holding you would find in other “stealth” games like Splinter Cell or Assassin’s Creed. In fact, all the hand-holding you get is a bare-bones tutorial where they teach you the most basic controls, and what the consumable items do as you get them for the first time. After that, you’re on your own, trying to fumble your way through the game. And promptly dying, because fumbling creates noise and noise means you’re dead.
That was only said half-jokingly. If you walk into objects, like chairs and buckets, they will fall down and the minor ruckus will alert guards, or whoever is around you. And when you are a little goblin, even an ordinary dockworker with a hammer is dangerous when you have to fight “mano a mano”. An interesting game mechanic is that, because you are a small goblin, you can crawl under tables and into other confined spaces, which will magically make you invisible to all the guards, unless they are alerted. As you can imagine, continuing on in a third-person perspective when your player character is hidden under a table can be quite difficult, and Cyanide Studio has cleverly decided to switch you to a first-person perspective whenever you are in a confined space.
Unfortunately when you are in first person, it becomes quite difficult to have your brain spatialize where Styx’s body is. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, for, if you can’t fit, you just stop moving and that’s how you know. But when the thing you’re going to hit is a chair, there is no way for you to know that you’re going to hit it, assuming you aren’t literally walking right into it, until it tips over and makes every guard in your vicinity go bonkers.
In Styx: Master of Shadows, shadows are your friend, but not in a way in which you are the “master.” You’re more of a refugee, but I suppose “Styx: Refugee of the Shadows” just doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. When in shadows, you are much harder to detect and, thus, exponentially decrease your chance of death. Not that guards are particularly good at spotting you. Not only do they lack peripheral vision, they appear to be in dire need of corrective lenses as the following image will illustrate.
That’s right, that guard never even noticed the dark figure on the other side of the gate. Not even once. Although, we should probably be grateful, for if the guards were actually eagle-eyed, we would never get past the first level. And I’m not saying that I don’t understand why the guard’s sensing mechanics aren’t realistic, it’s just sometimes it makes me go, “Really? How am I not dead yet. I should be dead.”
There is a whole knife blade poking out from behind that sack. How do you not see it? Very well, I shall reward you for your lack of diligence.
Good night sweet prince. May you be respawned as an NPC in a game with better AI.
The AI guards will also very quickly go back to their ordinary patrol paths after halfheartedly investigating the deaths of literally every single other person in the room. Because you know, I wouldn’t be a bit more suspicious and careful after seeing all the bodies of my dead friends and colleagues who were alive not even a mere moment ago.
It’s not all bad though. In fact, far from it. The game is actually quite good looking with very, few visual issues. Sure, there’s the odd texture that wouldn’t look out of place from a video game released in the late 90s, but you need to remember that this is a game made on a budget and, on a whole, the game does look quite stunning. The gameplay mechanics in general work pretty well together. You get a very limited amount of each item, which makes you extremely careful when it comes to using them. You can also choose to kill people quick and noisy, or slow but quiet, which is sort of important when there are multiple individuals in a room and you don’t want to get swarmed and, therefore, die.
The levels are really large with many collectibles for you to find, if you’re into that sort of thing. The only gripes I have with the level designs is the fact that it isn’t entirely clear what objects are climbable, especially jutting stones on walls, that would have been climbable in games like Assassin’s Creed or Uncharted, which leads to many silly deaths. Also, it would have been nice to have had the ability to decide to start hanging from a ledge when you’re standing next to it, like in Assassin’s Creed. In addition to being large, there are also an immense number of guards in the levels. Each level has upwards of 100 guards, of various types, which can reach up to 200, so even if every individual isn’t the brightest bulb in the box, they are still a very big danger in numbers. There are also many different varieties of enemies, requiring different strategies on your part when deciding how to kill or get around them. For example, there are workers who can relight torches you extinguish, crossbowmen who can kill you from incredible distances, knights who you can’t stab from the back, and blind bugs that react to the minutest of sounds.
Styx: Master of Shadows isn’t a game that takes itself overly seriously
Some of you may have noticed that I mentioned you will die a lot. This happens regardless of whatever difficulty you’re playing on. When you are playing easy, medium or hard, you get a chance to parry a guard’s attack in hope of eventually overpowering and killing him. Unfortunately, the parrying system is extremely difficult, as it is, basically, a spruced up quick-time event, and you will die plenty of times in one-on-one situations and find certain death when you fight more than one enemy at a time. There is also a final “goblin mode” where you don’t even get the chance to parry. Seeing as I couldn’t parry anyway, I just opted to play goblin mode. Get caught and you will be immediately killed by whoever: Bug, blacksmith or knight.
However, it’s this feeling of helplessness and fear that really makes this game. The atmosphere, especially when it comes to “goblin mode,” really does remind me of the Amnesia series of games. Get spotted and you’re dead, it’s not like Assassin’s Creed and Splinter Cell where, after you kick open the hornet’s nest, you can then subsequently fight off all the hornets with minimal fuss. This is a stealth game and you really do feel like a small goblin thief trying to get by.
However, some of the animations are piss-poor. The one for clone creation is laughable, as from certain angles it looks like a cardboard cut-out. The voicework is okay for the main characters, but there appears to be about two, maybe three, different voices for the generic guards and when there are hundreds of them, you will hear the same death cries over and over again. Lip-syncing is also hilariously bad, as is the cloth physics.
There is also no quicksave option, so unless you want to save every little bit of your progress by jumping into your menu and doing the whole save game shindig, you will have to rely on autosaves which happen infrequently. This was especially a problem when I ran into what seemed to be quite a significant bug where my autosave wiped all my save files. This got even worse when I somehow ran into a situation where my game would keep giving me game overs within 15 seconds of loading in because I must have not hidden a body I killed earlier and the body got discovered on a level where I wasn’t supposed to get detected at all.
The story conversations are written in quite an interesting way. They can be quite crass and just when you’d think a character would break into a long and drawn out monologue about history this and lore that, Styx would immediately stop him, uttering some variation of “I don’t care, just tell me what you want”, with various curse words interwoven, to move the game along. I’ll admit, the humor and jokes even made me laugh out loud a few times.
Styx: Master of Shadows isn’t a game that takes itself overly seriously and it knows it. It isn’t a Pulitzer Prize winning story or a masterclass in the art of voice-acting, but it’s a darned good budget stealth game that actually takes the stealth part seriously (in the sense that, if you aren’t stealthy, you will lose). The graphics are clean, the gameplay is generally sound and you’ll get a few laughs in between. If you like a good stealth game, you could do a lot worse than Styx: Master of Shadows, especially at the price of $25. Never thought I’d have fun playing as a goblin, but I just did and so will you, probably.
Styx: Master of Shadows
- Available On: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
- Published By: Focus Home Interactive
- Developed By: Cyanide Studio
- Genre: Stealth
- US Release Date: October 7th, 2014
- Reviewed On: PC
- Quote: "This isn't a game that takes itself overly seriously and it knows it. It's a good budget stealth game that actually takes the stealth part seriously."