A prequel of sorts to 2012's 'Of Orcs and Men', developer Cyanide Studios has opted to drop the admittedly clunky mix of turn-based and stealth mechanics in favor of your more traditional 3rd person stealthing found here in 'Styx: Master of Shadows'. Patience, planning and perhaps a bit of courage are the weapons at your disposal, used to sneak your way through all of the game's obstacles in way of your next objective. Then again, if that fails, you still have your knife.
With skills to learn, amber-driven abilities to unleash, and a surprisingly open and accommodating sense of level design, this game is sure to please fans of the genre, right? Perhaps not.
While a mostly competent stealth experience Styx proves to be, it makes too many mistakes. Too many questionable design decisions. There's just an overall lack of polish about the title. Long story short, Styx: Master of Shadows falls prey to good ideas, marred by poor execution.
The game follows the actions of amber-craved goblin, Styx – smarmy, thieving and overall badass – who you may just remember from the previously mentioned 'Of Orcs and Men'. The story is set some two-hundred years prior and, this time around, we're tailing the little guy as he makes an attempt on the Tower of Arkanash, the home of the “World Tree” and the source of the world's amber. To be fair, the entire story adds up to little more than fluff, mainly there to give purpose to the levels laid out for the player.
While some interesting story bits can be found near the end of the game, at that point, none of it means all that much.
While this could have been evened out with a solid list of noteworthy characters, that doesn't end up being the case. While there are a number of recurring characters on offer, they are never given the screen time, nor the script, to leave any real impression. The bad guys, while complete dicks, are never given the time to grow. So, even by the end, they served as characters who, again, are just that . . . complete dicks. They never grew to the point where I truly cared to see them brought down a peg or two. They were simply an afterthought behind the goal itself, obtaining the Heart.
Even your apparent friends act as little more than a mouthpiece spouting the next objective. By the end of the game, I felt like I knew nobody involved.
It must be said, however, that Styx proves to be the highlight of the story, here. All in all, he proves himself an entertaining character and all around solid protagonist. He is an arrogant and cheeky bastard, pulling it without ever coming off as forced.
He still falls in with the other characters, where I never felt he was developed all that far through the story, but he serves his purpose, and at least managed to bring some character to otherwise bland storytelling and writing.
The writing is but an element to the game as a whole, mind you, so, hopefully, the combat makes up for the shortfalls of the story, right? Well, no. Not really.
Don't get me wrong, Styx, above everything else, is a stealth game. Throughout out the ten-or-so hour campaign, you will be sneaking by way of shadow, creating distractions in order to cover your progress, snuffing out torchlight, both near and far, and ducking under tables/into closets in order to avoid detection when out in the open.
Everything about the stealth mechanics is thought out and, in theory, should provide everything needed for a solid stealth title. Even the level design, as stated earlier, holds up well. Allowing for multiple paths through the game's many large levels.
The game is unfortunately brought down by awkward controls, shoddy platforming and weak enemy AI, however.
While on the ground, Styx performs rather well. You have a rolling mechanic, used both as a dodge during the game's combat (considering the stealth approach had failed you already) as well as a means to find yourself quickly behind cover, considering you haven't already raised suspicion. While on his two feet, you are given the ability to sneak around, taking enemies by surprise and either ending their life quickly (and loudly), or taking a slower approach. Slow . . . but quiet.
From there stuffing them into a closet or chest in order to avoid detection, something you will be spending a fair amount of time doing, considering you're the type who likes to actually progress in the game, not spend 90% of your time fleeing the point of a guard's sword, or ducking under tables in their search of you.
Don't forget that you are a thief. There are also hidden treasures to be found, and acquired, often coming in way of secondary objectives that not only reward those willing with the prize itself, but also with much valued skill points only otherwise offered only at the end of main missions, used to upgrade your skills and abilities. From assisting your assassination skills to making you even more one with the shadows around you. To the simple stuff, such as allowing for you to carry more health and amber bottles, or even the occasional throwing knife.
You can also try sneaking behind the many NPC's of the game, making an attempt at pickpocketing whatever valuables they may have on them. This often times rewards the player in health or amber vials. Keep in mind that taking out the NPC in question prior to pickpocketing them, the vials will be destroyed upon the takedown.
A design decision that plays into either game balance, or even just as a risk/reward sort of deal, I'm sure, but something that bothered me nonetheless.
You also have a number of magical abilities at the palm of your hand. Fueled by the golden-yellow liquid found often times throughout the environment, and in words between the games many npc's, amber, Styx's abilities range from creating a henchmen goblin of sorts who serves as a distraction, even a trap, considering the level of your abilities, using an amber-hued vision ability that helps you discern traversable terrain from that which is not. This ability can also be used to identify enemy positioning, again, after further developing the ability. You're also given the ability to go invisible for a few moments, allowing you a chance to escape any sticky situation, though at the expense of much of your ever-valuable amber.
All the skills are fun to use, and they do a lot to open up the otherwise standard, if functional, game mechanics.
This is all brought down by poor ai, unpredictable NPC behavior and almost laughable enemy pathfinding, hurting the overall experience the further into the game you get, the more comfortable the game feels to push these elements onto you in turn.
Styx doesn't always find himself on the ground, however. And that's just where the issues start coming into play. For as nimble as Styx's ground-game may be, his platforming could use some work. For a title that spends more than its fair share of time tasking players with traversing the environments; keeping out of site of the guards just below them, it never quite fully realized its platforming mechanics.
The act of climbing walls and jumping, taking ledges and jumping from platform to platform are as much a test of skill as they are a test of luck and patience.
The detection while platforming is completely hit or miss. While it may appear that you'll make it to the next ledge, you're never quite sure until you try. I guess here I'll give points for the fact you can save anywhere. At least it serves to mitigate the aggravation of the spotty platforming.
And that isn't to say the game won't just screw you over itself. Say you do make it to the ledge, it's really now up to the game itself to decide what happens. Sad, but true. There were multiple instances in the game where I would make the shift to the next ledge, to only then be rewarded with Styx refusing to grab on, then falling to his death in the process.
A game with this amount of focus on platforming should never have players questioning whether or not they're attempts will even fairly register.
These issues are even further pushed by the fact you have little to no control over what should be the game's contextual platforming elements.
In a game about avoiding sight of the many guards that litter the halls of Arkanash, I'm given very little control over whether I am simply hanging from a ledge, or hopping over it.
This here is another huge detriment to the title. The simple fact that it's more or less a guessing game whether I will hope over a wall, or shimmy along it. Whether I am trying to drop down to a lower level, or trying to grab hold of the ledge itself. These are things that just shouldn't be seen in a stealth game.
And just to top off this otherwise glaringly positive review . . . the game's ugly. Ugly on all fronts, to be entirely honest. From a technical stand-point, the game is largely behind the times. From texture work reminiscent of late to mid-generation 360/PS3 days, to poor character models and weak animations (clipping and hilarious rag-dolling included), the visuals aren't going to win any awards, highlighting the smaller budget this game was obviously held to.
It doesn't manage saving via a strong art style either. Aside from the interesting accent here or there, Arkanash Tower serves as little more than your standard medieval placeholder world. They placed bits here and there to create the sense of its own identity, sure. But the environments themselves aren't very interesting, the game doing little to separate itself from many a similar title before it.
Even your home base, already providing little of interest to the player, doesn't even do much in way of creating a home even visually interesting for the player.
Strong mechanics, poor writing and shoddy controls. Short, sweet and an ideal way to describe Styx: Master of Shadows as a whole. The framework of a good title is here. Almost fully realized, really. Styx, based purely on its mechanics, could be a fantastic stealth game. It's easy to see. Mechanics, however, give way to poor execution and the game proves proves itself a hard one to recommend.
The truth is, as sparse a genre as this may be at times, it's easier with some titles to just tell people to stay away. Either dig into their back-catalog or simply just replay an old classic. At its thirty-dollar price tag, there's just far too many games I can recommend over this one. Most of which can be had for even cheaper now.
If you are a die-hard stealth gamer, the price might just make this an appetizing prospect for you. If so, and considering the title's issues, by all means. That said, I've given you full warning. Don't expect anything too compelling here.
For everyone else, wait on this. It's going to be cheaper soon enough.
It's not even that it's a bad game. I certainly had my fun with it. But there was an issue to be found for every good thing to say. It's a title constantly shifting between shoddiness and competence, wearing both its best and worst bits on its sleeve.
I would like to see a follow-up with this one, honestly. There's so much good to be seen here, it's sad to see it bogged down by questionable design. Expand upon the skills and abilities system, clean up the AI and present your game world as a place much more wondrous and, perhaps next time, you'll have something special.