Up until now, gamers looking for a pure triple-A stealth experience that didn’t have “Thief” or “Splinter Cell” in its title have had to make do with slim pickings. Cyanide Studios is hoping to change that however with its newest game release; Styx: Master of Shadows. The game combines freeform exploration with a plot centered around an unusual protagonist: the titular Styx, a goblin master thief who utilizes various tools and unconventional tricks to help him get in undetected and get out. But does Styx strike the right balance of tense stealth, harrowing escapes, and satisfying loot collecting? Or was this goblin thief better off remaining in the shadows?
The sort of stealth experience that Styx: Master of Shadows contains is one that certainly takes some getting used to. It obviously has key staples such as use of light to determine how easily enemies can detect you, hidden secrets to uncover, and a variety of different stealth kills that can be performed, but the execution of these and other elements in Styx sadly leave a lot to be desired. The best way to summarize Styx would be a pile of fun-looking puzzle pieces that, while engaging on their own, just don’t fit well together.
Within my first ten minutes with Styx, I already found a number of issues. The third-person gameplay allows you to perform basic actions such as crouching, jumping, rolling, hanging from ledges, and pressing up against cover. While all this sounds good in theory however, navigating the world can often be a frustrating nightmare. Unlike some other games that have the player character “stick” to narrow ledges and platforms, Styx offers no such safety net. You’ll frequently miscalculate how close you are to an edge or how far a certain jump is and fall to your death.
The game’s dialogue, which mostly consists of Styx narrating to the player, seems to be trying to be both edgy and compelling at the same time and is rife with mature language that feels unnecessary and forced. I understand Cyanide was trying to go for a darker, more gritty tone with Styx but having most of the game’s characters drop an f-bomb in every third sentence of dialogue doesn’t make me think “edgy”, it makes me think things like “lazy” and “immature.” The fact that the overall quality of the voice acting is subpar at best quickly killed whatever little investment I had left in the game’s story and in Styx himself.
If Cyanide was hoping to make up for Styx’s poor voice work and spotty navigation mechanics with solid stealth and combat, it did fare slightly better in those departments but also fell woefully short of the “fun” mark. The ability to use a mysterious substance called “Amber” to perform neat tricks such as temporary invisibility or summoning a clone that can distract enemies offers some variety to how players approach a typical encounter. These cool Amber tricks however are offset by eagle-eyed enemies that can spot Styx from some distance away even when he’s cloaked in shadows and whose pathing routines are spotty at best.
If (when) you do alert guards, loading up your last save is almost always the most viable choice since the parry-based combat system is only useful against a single opponent and fighting will just alert other enemies to your presence. Just remember to save often as the game’s auto save system is incredibly conservative, often costing you many minutes of progress if you forget to save at routine intervals. Against some powerful enemy types such as knights and crossbowmen, combat isn’t even really an option since their advanced defenses and one-hit kills will end a conflict before it even begins.
Then there’s the stealth itself which functions well at a basic level but is crippled by several minor elements. Even when you’re crouched, rolling too close to an enemy will get you detected as will jumping down from too great a height near a guard, even if their back is turned. Loose environmental objects such as chairs, buckets, and brooms will also give you away immediately if you bump into them which, trust me, will happen a lot considering how frequently they’re peppered into the environment.
This combination of spotty guard routines and frustrating furniture also makes performing any sort of stealth kill other than the basic behind-the-back one a crapshoot since a guard will often walk just out of reach of a corner kill or a ledge kill. Then there’s the death-from-above kills which, again unlike in most games, require the player to actually jump down towards an enemy, pray that they got the timing right, and then mash the stealth kill button as they’re falling to initiate the kill. Needless to say, performing a death-from-above kill on a guard who isn’t standing still takes a sort of coordinated mastery that only comes after many, many failed attempts.
Of course, you won’t even get to attempt any of these different types of kills until you unlock them through the game’s skill system. Here’s how it works: at the end of each mission, you’ll head back to Styx’s hideout and earn skill points both for completing the mission and for any secondary objectives you completed. These skill points can be used to purchase a variety of skills from different categories which include the new stealth kill types I mentioned, new augments for your Amber powers, and the ability to carry more items. I’d recommend investing in the item capacity skills early on since, even though there aren’t that many types of items to find (health potions, Amber potions, and throwing knives), you’re definitely going to want more than the meager amount the game starts you out with.
The problem however is that skills can *only* be purchased when you’re at your hideout. Even if you earn enough skill points during a mission to purchase a new skill, you cannot do so until the mission is over, forcing players to guess at which skills they might need for the next mission as opposed to which skills look the most fun to them. And yes, that means you have to play through the entire first mission (a given mission in Styx can take anywhere from 45 minutes to over an hour to complete depending on how often you die or have to restart) before you can even purchase your first skill.
While the sprawling tower that serves as the game’s setting is very aesthetically pleasing, you’ll often be too focused on surviving your next stealth encounter or running for your life from guards to appreciate it. Even on its easiest difficulty setting, Styx is a brutally unforgiving game that will test your patience as much as your stealth skills which is a shame since both the game’s concept and world are so fascinating. The game never really lets you stop and breath for a bit during a mission which sadly turns the entire game into a tedious grind of frustration rather than an engaging stealth experience.
I want to admire Cyanide for the ambition it showed with Styx but one thing I wish both it and publisher Focus Home Interactive were a little less ambitious about was the game’s asking price. Considering all of the above frustrations I mentioned and the fact that Styx doesn’t include any sort of challenge mode or other optional side content, the game’s $30 price tag seems a bit steep. If you still want to give Styx a try for yourself, I’d highly recommend waiting until you can get it at a discounted sale price.
I feel especially disappointed with Styx: Master of Shadows since not only is it a game I have been looking forward to but also because it’s a mediocre experience that has glimmers of greatness hidden within it. The game does its best to immerse players in a dark fantasy world and give them a robust set of stealth tools with which to forge their own path. The problem is that said path is such a disastrous nightmare to traverse that whatever little the game does right is overshadowed by the monumental frustration and tedium you’ll inevitably feel while playing it. If you’re absolutely desperate for a challenging new stealth experience then I guess you could give Styx a try. For more casual gamers who’d rather not waste hours of their life on frustration however, Styx should be avoided at all costs.