Styx: Master of Shadows Review

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Posted October 13, 2014 by John Clark in Video Games

Developer: Cyanide

Publisher: Focus Home Interactive

Price: $24

Available On: PC [reviewed], Playstation 4, Xbox One

“I really want to like this game,” I told myself repeatedly while playing Styx: Master of Shadows. Depending on how far in I was, it may have been said with exasperation, relief, or something more akin to exhaustion. Now finished, I’m convinced that Styx has some of the best ideas and themes in the stealth genre since the golden days of Thief 2, but faulty execution repeatedly hampers the experience.

Styx: Master of Shadows is a prequel to Of Orcs and Men, developer Cyanide’s previous foray into fantasy. Unlike that title, which blended action and stealth, this is a pure stealth game through and through. The eponymous Styx is a goblin assassin on a mission to infiltrate the Tower of Akenash, an enormous man-made stronghold used to contain both the ageless elves and the world tree, the source of all amber. Amber is a potent substance capable of bestowing incredible abilities upon those who can withstand its power, and Styx wants this power for himself.

The game’s plot is one of its stronger points, with a basic premise subverted by clever writing and a memorable protagonist. Though we’ve come to expect gruff-voiced and solitary main characters from stealth games, Styx is a charming protagonist with a violent, foul-mouthed quick wit coupled with an almost cheery outlook on his murderous calling. The tower he explores is a marvel to behold, blending themes of many real-world architectures and fantasy tropes to create a fascinating backdrop to the events at hand.

The soundtrack deserves equal credit, with an excellent score that always seems to be appropriate to the scene at hand. Unfortunately, these impressive features are somewhat hamstrung by the game’s lacking technical aspects, with gorgeous, moody lighting sabotaged by inconsistent textures and ugly characters. Seemingly at random, Master of Shadows alternates between being quite pretty and absolutely garish.

 

Styx's ability to turn invisible for brief periods can make seemingly impossible challenges a breeze.

Styx’s ability to turn invisible for brief periods can make seemingly impossible challenges a breeze.

This theme of ambition being marred by budgetary constraints runs through the game as a whole. I constantly found myself impressed by a design choice while playing, only to curse the lack of polish in implementing it seconds later. The gameplay is about as hardcore as stealth games get; unlike hybrid titles that allow the protagonist to cut down their foes after being detected, Styx subscribes to the classic approach, where a failure to stay hidden is usually a fatal error. If any enemies catch sight of the diminutive assassin, they’ll quickly close in and lock the player into an ill-advised combat minigame, which forces Styx to parry a varying number of strikes before getting a brief opportunity to instantly kill his foe. It wouldn’t be a terrible system if not for the fact that this ‘combat state’ doesn’t prevent other guards from joining in, which means that being caught usually ends with a reload.

Thankfully, Styx has many tools to avoid detection. He’s suitably acrobatic, and convenient handholds are everywhere. There’s almost always at least a handful of ways to get through any given room, and sometimes many more. Styx’s personal kit consists of lethal weapons like throwing knives, which can be used to instantly dispatched lightly armored foes, and sand balls that can put out torches from afar, providing darkness in which to creep about. In addition to these more mundane implements, regular consumption of amber grants Styx supernatural abilities. He can briefly turn invisible, give himself enhanced sight not unlike the ‘Eagle Vision’ of Assassin’s Creed, and, most notably, create a clone of himself out of pure amber (complete with a creatively disgusting animation where he vomits it forth). This clone can be manually controlled and used to distract guards, set ambushes, and explode into a makeshift smoke bomb.

All of these abilities come together to create plenty of emergent gameplay opportunities, such as baiting an otherwise indestructible enemy knight underneath a chandelier with the amber clone, then having Styx cut the chain to drop the chandelier onto said knight to kill him and any other foes close by. A robust upgrade system complements these options well, allowing Styx to perform stealth kills from hiding places, use guards to cushion long falls while simultaneously executing them, and other useful feats.

 

Guards sometimes have hilarious conversations. This is not one of those times.

Guards sometimes have hilarious conversations. This is not one of those times.

Unfortunately, the story’s second half once again betrays the limited resources behind the game’s development. In a fairly blatant bit of padding, almost every one of Master of Shadows‘ stages winds up getting repeated at least once before the game is over. Though guard layouts differ and objectives change, it was incredibly tedious to backtrack through the same environments all over again. This is exacerbated by the addition of creative, but oftentimes obnoxious, new enemies and obstacles, such as orcs that instantly kill you when you get too close and giant insectoids that force you to move at a snail’s pace to avoid detection. By the closing hours of the game’s ten or so hour campaign, almost all of my goodwill earned by the game’s plot and varied approach to stealth was exhausted.

Styx: Master of Shadows does a lot of things right, and for $24, it sets expectations accordingly of its more budget-oriented limitations. Between the innovative setting, interesting characters, and no-nonsense approach to stealth gameplay, there’s plenty to appreciate. Hardcore stealth players will probably find it a refreshing contrast to the overly linear Thief [2014] and Hitman: Absolution. To those people, I can recommend the game, albeit with the caveats stated above. As for me…well, I really want to like this game.

But I’m not sure I do.


About the Author

John Clark