Styx: Shards of Darkness
Goblins and Elves and Dwarves, oh my!
I will be entirely frank with you all. I absolutely loved the first Styx game. It was dark, well put together, and generally had an uncouth air that poked fun at most tropes of high fantasy games all the while having a serious undertone that helped the player to not underestimate the game. That being said, the sequel took everything I loved about the first game and made it better.
First, a quick synopsis for those of you who haven’t played the game. You control a worldly and unique goblin. You are small, fragile, and a drug addict. Styx is addicted to a substance known as Amber; it was produced, in the first game, by a magical tree that sat in the center of a flying fortress known as the Tower of Akenash, and through a series of events the World Tree, the last one at that, is destroyed, and from its death, clones of Styx emerge, birthing the goblin race.
The game is a pure stealth game. Being a small creature lacking the physical strength of the humans, elves, and dwarves, fighting face to face is not really an option. Your objectives are usually clear, and the game is fairly challenging, yet fun. You are given a set of amber driven powers, such as: invisibility, cloning yourself, and a form of true sight that allows you to see object you can interact with, and fields of vision coming from your enemy. All of these powers are upgradable using skill points that you get in game by completing missions, side tasks, and other random things that one wouldn’t necessarily expect. The longer you play, the more skill points you get, the more SP you get, the better Styx gets at espionage, murder, and crafting.
The game itself opens up with a score riddled with the notes of a bass guitar with drums and tunes reminiscent of the Witcher series. The score actually pulled me further into the story, because it would be something you would associate with a goblin, orc, or other classically evil race from high fantasy. You are in Thoben, City of Thieves, and a rat infested hell hole that Styx has ended up top thief and assassin at. It’s dark, dingy, dilapidated, and full of people out for the blood of goblins.
The beginning level is rather linear. There is a clear cut path that you must take, with few obstacles other than the boxes, collapsed buildings and bridge, and other such things. There are other goblins sparsely populating these destroyed hovels, mute, of low intelligence, and generally hated by the other “goodly races.”
After traversing this beginning area of the game and gaining confidence, two enemies are introduced with the murder of a fellow goblin. Enter the anti-goblin group; C.A.R.N.A.G.E. This is where the stealth really starts to come into its own. Styx keeps a knife on the small of his back and a glowing design will fill up showing how far you are into a dark area. If it doesn’t glow, you’re in the brightest and most visible area possible, and enemies will spot you with just a glance. If the design fills completely, you are almost invisible and enemies will only spot you from a close distance. You must dispose of or sneak by the guards and get to your destination. The kill mechanic is broken down into a loud but quick kill or a quiet, muffled kill. I died constantly during this part and began to feel frustrated because neither option seemed to work for me. One guard was standing at a railing, while his partner went about fifty feet away. The loud kill will instantly alert anyone within a mile of your position and is almost never viable unless there is only one enemy remaining (and at that point why wouldn’t you just sneak around them), or you were discovered and need to move quickly. The muffled kill is excellent, but takes a hair too long, I feel. You go through the animation of the victim struggling while Styx attempts to silence them, and with a rather quiet and discomforting “Shhh” they die. This is great, except for when there are multiple enemies that travel in closely knit packs and you’re timing is off by just one second.
That’s when I realized that this game wasn’t necessarily about killing your enemies and tying up loose ends, the point was to be a ghost, using your invisibility and other amber driven powers to distract, incapacitate, or just ghost-walk your way through a level. Once I remembered that the game was about a relatively weak (compared to the other races) sneak thief, I stopped caring about leaving enemies at my back and used the darkness and powers to their full effect.
I enjoy that about this game, I feel nowadays with games that try to market themselves as stealth-centric, are more action games with stealth elements. Splinter Cell went from a full on stealthy espionage game to a “You can be quiet, but like…why not just run and gun? It’s faster.” kind of game. It remade Sam Fisher into a character who cared less about leaving no trace to one that decided a mountain of bodies was better to get up to a window than a ladder or a ledge. Styx is all about the stealth to me, and that’s where the challenge comes in. I went through the game on the second easiest setting, and I still got my ass handed to me. Enemies are a touch too perceptive, in my book, but that just adds to it. Memorize their movement patterns and time it so you can slip by without being detected. Patience is the key to this game, and that’s how I enjoy my stealth games, taking it slow, watching, listening, observing, and only killing when necessary.
You are even graded on how many enemies you kill. The fewer you kill, the higher you are rated. The medals follow the Olympic standard of gold, silver, bronze, to not ranked, and you will lose your gold medal if you kill more than two enemies. These are not short levels, they take time, and certain sections are so full of enemies it left me frustrated to the point of quitting and coming back with a new idea.
You as the player are graded on a number of things, speed of completion, amount of mercy you show, and times detected. The only thing I found that I didn’t like was that in order to get a gold medal in some of these levels, it gave you ten minutes. Some of these levels took me 40 minutes just to get through the first section. I’m not normally a completionist and don’t necessarily care for the fact that I don’t have all gold medals, but when you are rewarded SP based on the medal you got, I find it unfair to the player that takes his time to truly play the game as a ghost playthrough. Perhaps that’s my own gripe, but it seems that I am being punished for playing the game cautiously. Styx, as a character, is snarky, mean, and generally odious, but he is a cautious one. He is not stupid, and will think before he acts. It seems that in order to get a gold medal in time, you must break from the character that is Styx and throw caution to the wind, but in the end, this is a minor gripe.
“[It} took everything I loved about the first game and made it better.”
The crafting component of the game lets you make health vials, amber vials, crossbow bolts, lock picks, acid traps, and all sorts of other devices to help your quest. I rarely used any of the lethal craftable items. The acid trap is the most viable, in my mind, since it kills and removes all trace of the enemy. It’s fairly easy to use since the guards all have fairly repetitive paths of movement, so it can create a sizable enough hole for the player to slip through, but it’s honestly not worth the resources. The lock picks help you open doors to easier and more stealthy paths or store rooms, and the crossbow bolt kills all but the most armored enemies, but leaves a body for your enemies to find. Besides the potions, the lock pick was my most used and crafted item, it was just too handy.
All in all, this game has its issues, repetitive character models, slightly dumb AI, poor animations, and certain bugs, but the charm is there for me. The lore is less interesting than the character that is Styx, his snarky dialogue, with constant snipes at other games like the Witcher series and Assassin’s Creed made me chuckle at times. Styx is a genuinely interesting character set in a dark, high fantasy setting where he fits perfectly, and the fact that you are graced with Styx’s displeasure at dying when you lose all your health has its moments too. Asking to order a pepperoni pizza in order to pass the time while he reconstitutes himself, making a Terminator reference, and chastising the player for being bad at the game helps with the fact that the player will probably die often. I think this game is worth the $40 price tag. Though the game isn’t as polished as we would like to see from our games these days, it’s still a solid stealth game. There are issues, but they can be overlooked for the level of enjoyment and the sheer amount of times you will feel accomplished after beating a particularly difficult part.