Reviews

Styx: Master of Shadows Review – Not The Master, But The Apprentice

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Platforms: PC, Xbox One and PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Cyanide Studios
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

The stealth genre has seen a magnificent resurgence over the past few years, but has also seen a shift in gameplay style, often pitching the player as a powerful predator who can annihilate foes if discovered,  a hunter who doesn’t even need to hide, in truth. Styx: Master of Shadows, though, is a throwback, placing you in the shoes of a character who is dangerous, but fragile and must always remain in the shadows.

You play as the titular Styx, a small goblin clad in leather, a strange choice for anyone professing to be a master of the shadows given how noisy the material can be. His goal is to sneak through the Tower of Akanesh and acquire the Heart of the World Tree, while hopefully learning something about his own origins along the way.

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It’s all connected to the events of Cyanide’s previous work Of Orcs and Men in which Styx was a main character, but knowledge of that game is far from required.  Having not played the aforementioned Of Orcs and Men I slipped into Styx: Master of Shadows with absolutely no fuss, never once failing to understand the plot. Largely that’s because the narrative is pretty light-weight and not all that well put together, except for a mid-game twist which most people will see coming so long as they’re paying vague attention but is still rather fun. The thin plot is combined with a lack of interesting characters outside of Styx himself, who has a penchant for dropping perfectly timed f-bombs and has a great voice actor working to bring him to life. He’s a fun character, the obvious standout in a cast that otherwise is completely forgettable.

What transpires within the vast tower is a third-person stealth ’em up set across several open levels. Styx has an assortment of basic stealth moves at his disposal with which to navigate past the many guards that inhabit Akanesh. He begins with the simplest of the simple: hiding behind cover, holding on to ledges and the ability to kill those that get in the way. Murder comes in two forms: a quick tap of X (assuming you’re using a controller) leads to a noisy but fast execution, while holding down the button makes Styx take his time while keeping it quiet. Although you can make it through the game with minimal killing, there’s no non-lethal takedown options available – it’s either murder or stealth. Ranged kills can be performed with throwing knives, provided you have some. On top of that Styx can jump around, poison drink or food and even unfasten chandeliers to either squash enemies or cause a diversion. Finally torches can be extinguished by either standing next to them and tapping the appropriate button or by tossing a ball of sand at them.

The game operates using a pretty simple set of rules familiar to anyone who has ever sneaked through a game: hide in the shadows and you’ll go relatively unseen, although if a guard is close they will spot you. Noise is handled equally simply: run or move too fast and somebody will come over to check out the racket. Likewise dropping from a height can be noisy. Carpeted areas allow you to move quickly or drop from a height in near silence, while brooms, buckets and other objects can all be knocked over, attracting every nearby guard in the process. It’s a straightforward set of mechanics that are easy to understand, thereby allowing you to focus completely on staying out of sight. Sometimes it can be a little tricky to judge if you’re going to get spotted or not, though, and  on a few occasions guards seemed able to see through walls.

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Courtesy of the Amber flowing through his body, a substance produced by the huge World Tree, Styx also has access to a couple of fun tricks, starting with the relatively simple Amber Vision which highlights objects in the environment, and the ability to vanish for a brief amount of time. By far the best of the lot, though, is his slightly disgusting ability to vomit forth a clone of himself that can then be controlled by the player. Naturally the clone’s abilities are a tad limited in comparison to Styx’s, but it can squeeze through certain doors that he can’t, pull levers, poison food or drink and act as a decoy. With a few upgrades it can even hide in chests and grab passing guards. Sadly the game never comes up with situations with which to really use the clone to its best potential, but it’s a fine idea nonetheless. All of these powers are limited by the amount of Amber you have coursing through your veins, replenished by quaffing bottles of the stuff found around the environments.

Through upgrades Styx can get improve his move set, bringing it closer to what we see in most stealth ’em ups. He can learn to perform cover-kills, aerial kills and ledge kills, plus a few other moves. Even fully powered up, though, Styx doesn’t boast the same tools as many of his peers. While Dishonored’s Corvo can teleport, stop time and even possess foes, and Sam Fisher has an array of powerful gadgets hidden in his utility belt, Styx is just a goblin with a knife, some mild Amber-fuelled powers and a dirty mouth. This does, however, bring a certain purity to Master of Shadows – it’s a more straightforward stealth title with the focus almost solely on staying out of sight rather than utilising an array of cool powers.

The game is at its best when this simplicity is combined with the nicely designed, relatively open levels that offer up plenty of ways of progressing through the given mission. Take your time and there’s usually quite a few paths to find through a level. Styx’s small stature lets him hide under tables with ease, sneak through small tunnels that seem to basically be air ducts where none are needed, while locked doors can be picked and rafters abused by those wanting to feel like Batman without playing the Arkham games. The fact that the game takes place in a freaking humongous tower also means there’s plenty of verticality to the levels, giving you the chance to scale walls and watch enemies from up high. Platforming is unusual in that it mixes the automated movement of games like Uncharted with traditional freeform leaping and jumping. When using climbing points located on walls you simply need to press the stick in the direction of the next hand-hold and press the appropiate button to launch Styx across the void – easy. At every other time, though, you’re left to judge jumps entirely on your own, which of course means that it’s actually skill based, an admirable decision on the developer’s behalf, especially given how popular the dull semi-automatic system has become.

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Occasionally the quality of the levels dips when you encounter a sudden chokepoint that funnels you into a linear section filled with guards, and around half-way through the game you’ll have to venture back through levels you already completed but in reverse. As frustrating as it is to plod backwards through environments you’ve already tackled the game does at least manage to justify it from a narrative sense, and some of the levels are open enough that going through them again can feel quite different.

Though you can certainly run through almost all of the game without killing guards, the sheer amount of foes almost encourages you to get busy with a knife. Killing is simply the easier path in most cases. But either way there’s a nice pace to Styx: Master of Shadows. You’ll do a lot of patient sitting and watching, but never shall you have to hang around too long before seeing an opportunity to make a move. As you progress through the game new enemy types are introduced in a bid to keep things interesting – helmeted foes can’t be taken down with throwing knives, while strange bugs exhibit exceptional hearing. There’s even a type of enemy that wields magic that can immobilize you. It’s not enough, though, and after a while repetition sets in.

Upgrading skills is as simple as spending Skill Points at the Hideout between missions. Sadly your secret hideout isn’t some cool lair, it’s just a lifeless, dull place that you thankfully don’t have to spend much time in. The Skill Points are acquired by completing your primary objectives, but more can be gained by completing secondary objectives which are usually “kill X target” and “steal X item, or by never raising alarms and other things. There’s a total of five skill trees you can pick and choose from, each containing four or five upgrades. However, you can’t simply buy whatever takes your fancy, instead you must each upgrade in turn to unlock the next, meaning you’ll likely end up grabbing a few things you don’t want.

Artificial intelligence has long been the bane of stealth games, and Styx is most sadly no exception to this rule, exhibiting a range of stupidity in its guards. Upon discovering the body of a dead comrade they’ll react in a surprisingly calm manner before launching the weakest, shortest search for the culprit seen in a very long time, perhaps glancing under a nearby a table or ambling three feet away. After perhaps 30-seconds to a minute they will quietly meander back to their post, apparently all too willing to accept the death of a fellow guard as little more than an inconvenience. It takes almost all of the tension out of hiding from the enemy – you just slink a few feet away from the body, usually behind a corner, and wait it out.

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But by far the game’s biggest problem occurs when guards catch you. If you’re far enough away when they spot you then escaping is an option, at which point you’ll go through the same tedious process of hiding that I talked about above. But if you’re close to a guard when spotted you’ll be put into the most hideous combat system that I’ve had the misfortune to play in a very long time. These so-called “Duels” lock you into mortal combat with a single enemy, whereupon you must carefully parry or dodge attacks in order to open up his defenses and deliver a killing blow. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? That is until you realise that while you’re locked into a fight every other guard in the vicinity is free to puncture you with swords, throw daggers and riddle you with arrows, and you can’t do anything about it. If that wasn’t bad enough the timing for performing a parry is inconsistent at best, although an upgrade can help a tad. Being caught by more than a single guard is essentially a death sentence, and it didn’t take long for me to start automatically loading the last save rather than sit through another bout of poor combat.

It feels as though the developers actually wanted being discovered to be an instant failure, but the idea was somehow abandoned in order to fit in with the current modern design structure of stealth which says instant failure states are pure evil. In honestly I personally am not a fan of instant failure, but I’d rather have that than this atrocious combat system.

Every cloud has a silver lining, however, and combat does at least ensure that you’ll work hard to never be seen. Thankfully you can also quick save at any time, so with luck players won’t be put off attempting riskier maneuvers. In many ways it’s a refreshing change as most stealth titles today opt for a sense of empowerment, turning the player into a predator. In Splinter Cell: Blacklist Sam Fisher, if discovered, simply vaults a table and kicks everyone’s ass. In Styx you’re the prey, and your best bet is to never be seen. Indeed, it’s actually quite a challenging game at times. Still, a more robust, polished combat system would be welcome.

Controlling Styx can be problematic, too, quite often making you look less like a master of stealth and more like a confused guy who thinks he’s a ninja because he has a scarf wrapped around his face. Take, for instance, attempting to walk up to a ledge and hang off of it, a standard skill for any would be thief or assassin – sometimes Styx will gracefully do as told, gently vaulting over the edge and hanging on, and other times he’ll fall straight off to his death. Obviously such things can be rather irritating when trying to avoid guards or carefully time your movements. Furthermore Styx’s ability to detect the edge of a ledge you’re leaping to can be a little iffy, a problem that is exacerbated by the fact that judging a jump can on occasion be a challenge.

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Other notable hiccups include dodgy pathfinding, leading to plenty of scenes that involve guards walking into each other or getting stuck in the scenery.

Graphically the game is passible, although it’s budget nature is most clearly evident in the murky textures that adorn levels and during cutscenes where facial animation is janky. Likewise the animations during gameplay tend to be too stiff to truly make Styx seem like the graceful murdering thief he’s portrayed as. Even the artstyle doesn’t impress due to pretty standard environments and enemies, and indeed Cyanide Studios never manage to create a convincing, cohesive world. Something just feels off about the grand tower, like it’s so clearly a location designed for someone to sneak through. However, this is of course is what gives us the nicely designed levels, so ultimately the sacrifice is worth it. There is one genuine compliment to be paid, though: the game does feature some nice lighting.

Styx: Master of Shadows is not the kind of game you’ll regret missing or even get massively excited about purchasing, but it is a challenging stealth title that you’ll enjoy playing through. It’s not as smooth as most of its peers, but that sacrifice makes for a more traditional, challenging, straightforward game that fans of the genre should have a blast playing through. If you’re not a dedicated stealth fan, though, it’s tough to recommend.

The Good:
+ Styx himself.
+ Simple yet satisfying mechanics.
+ Perfectly timing a sequence of moves through guards.

The Bad:
– Poor narrative.
– Horrible combat.
– Styx not grabbing a ledge

The Verdict: 3/5 – Good
A good little game that stealth lovers should certainly take a look at.

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