Wot I Think – Styx: Master Of Shadows

Development company Cyanide have long been purveyors of interesting-but-guff fantasy games. Styx: Master of Shadows turns out to be their least-interesting-but-most-good. It’s a stealth game in which you play a goblin – the Styx of the title – sneaking around the Tower of Akenash, a medieval city built so high among the branches of “the World-Tree” that ledges stretch down into a cloudy abyss.

It’s also a strict stealth game: one in which triggering combat means almost certain death, and where you’ll spend your time mastering the shadows by hiding in them rather than pouncing from them.

This is rare, now. The drive towards making players feel more powerful means that every Sam Fisher eventually leaps over the table he used to hide behind, and simply starts beating up the people he was once afraid of. Styx charts a more difficult path, relying on the feeling of empowerment you get from exploring its vast, open environments.

It works, a lot of the time. Being in a city built on top of a tree in the sky means that you spend a lot of your time moving vertically, leaping between ledges, navigating via convenient hand-holds, and plotting paths of least resistance to whatever your target is. You’ll move into a room by ducking behind boxes, holding down the right-trigger to cling to a wall and tossing handfuls of sand to extinguish torches, but if the need to crouch and skirt ever begins to feel smothering, you’re almost always able to find a path up a wall to some ceiling beams, or to a second or third floor.

Each mission is split into four parts, and to give you a sense of scale, each of those parts contains upwards of around 40 guards. You’ll visit an embassy, a prison, some sewers, and almost everything will be grey and bleak, but there are regularly entire wings to buildings that are off the critical path, making it feel like you’re mastering the space in your slow exploration and discovery of it. There’s also just enough weirdness or grandeur – in an embassy and airship port, or in the tree branches that twist and coil through certain levels – to make up for a lot of low-resolution or misaligned textures.

To aid your sneaky exploration, you’ll rely on Styx’s limited abilities. The clear gimmick is your ability to create clones: using Amber as a magic source, you can place down a crawly-goblin doppelgänger and take control of it just as you do Styx. This begins as a way of solving simple door-opening puzzles; your clone can crawl through grates you cannot, and hit switches on the otherside. As you finish missions and earn XP though, you can unlock new abilities. One allows your clone to grab enemies from behind, so you can switch back to Styx and sneak by undetected. Another lets you hide your clones in wardrobes and chests, and tell them to drag inside and kill the first guard that walks by.

Styx himself can be similarly upgraded, to carry more equipment, make less noise, be able to perform aerial assaults, and other abilities across six categories. The upgrades stop short of every truly making you feel powerful, and perhaps consequently, of ever truly being interesting.

Mostly the game remains flat and repetitive across the course of the story – your need to remain in the shadows means that you’ll want to extinguish torches with your hands or with sand if from afar, and you’ll want to take the time to slowly ‘Muffle kill’ guards and hide their bodies so their friends don’t find them. This was how I got through almost every single challenge in the game, in spite of unlocking actions like being able to turn briefly invisible.

If you ever screw up and get caught, there’s a little wiggle room in the guard’s various alert statuses. At first glimpse, a bar will appear above their head indicating that they think they’ve seen something. Hide quickly and they’ll dismiss it as rats. If that bar fills, they’ll walk to the location to investigate and look around nearby corners. Again, hide quickly enough and they dismiss it as rats, but they’re smart enough to yank you out of wardrobes or chests they suspect you might be hiding inside. If this alert bar fills, they draw their sword and run towards you.

If any enemy gets close enough to you while on alert, you’ll be ‘locked in’ to combat with them. This means that you’re unable to turn away from the fight and flee. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except you can’t traditionally attack at this point. Instead you have to block between one and three of your opponent’s swings until they’re staggered, at which point you’ll have a brief window in which you can perform a single-strike kill move on them. Timing those parries is difficult enough, but even if you manage to perform the button presses at just the right moments, it’s likely the ruckus will have attracted more nearby guards to the scene. They don’t wait in line to attack you like compliant Assassin’s Creed AI, and given that more than half the enemies seem to carry ranged throwing knives alongside maces and swords, it’s likely you’ll be quickly clubbed to death.

This makes the game tense and the stealth meaningful, but combines with the game’s major flaw, in that it’s also also often repetitive and frustrating. That flaw is the controls.

This used to be a common problem in platform games. You want to drop down and grab on the ledge of the surface you’re currently standing on. A simple request, but one that’s fucking infuriating when the game can’t decide whether you want to drop down and fall or drop down and come immediately back up. It happened to me a hundred times, and each time coming immediately back up would mean I was spotted by a guard and falling down meant I disappeared into the smoky void and died. Even when you’re trying to do something simpler, like jump between two adjacent platforms, the game’s edge detection is flakey, making it unpredictable as to whether Styx would grab on to the wooden beam you were aiming for, some small outcrop of wall nearby, or nothing at all.

Either way, the unforgiving stealth mean that these mistakes most often force you back to the last save. Those saves are either checkpoints – too few and far between to rely on – or manual saves you can make via the menu at any time. The result is that I saved after passing every single room in the game for fear of having to repeat something hard or boring the next time the controls sent me to my doom.

Near the end, the repetition becomes too much. There’s variety in the enemies, such as guards that can’t be backstabbed, magical bugs who are blind but have super-hearing, and more. Levels are also large and fun to explore, and it’s unlikely you’ll discover everything or master the possible no-kill, no-sight playthrough on your first visit. But the story pushes its luck when the third mission requires you to backtrack through the building you’ve just sneaked inside. When I reached mission five, over ten hours in, and discovered that it was about doing mission four in reverse, my heart sank. There are six missions in all.

Styx’s adherence to strict definitions of a stealth game mean that it feels compellingly old-fashioned. It’s nice to play a stealth game again where seeing carpet underfoot is a blessed relief. It’s also nice that it’s not a wholly retro game, in that it’s clearly learned lessons from Batman and Dishonored as far as how to communicate information visually.

But Styx sets appropriate player expectations early: it costs £25/$25, half the price of many of its competitors. A lot of the time, cost is a shaky thing on which to measure a game – potential buyers know themselves how far their coffers will stretch – but being aware of the tight budget the game was presumably made on gets you halfway towards understanding much of Styx’s design. It doesn’t excuse the flaws, especially those control problems, but it explains why its textures look how they do, why no QA process wiped away those fiddly frustrations, and why it’s as focused on offering a single type of experience as it is. Given that the focus is also it’s biggest strength, it feels like a good example of making the most of what you’ve got.

You’re not going to love Styx. It’s not the kind of game you’re going to be itching for a sequel to. It seems kind of unfortunate that it was released within a week of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and Alien: Isolation. But sometime five or ten years from now you’ll be talking about stealth games with a friend and you’ll go, “Oh, hey, remember Styx? That was pretty good.”

Your friend probably won’t have played it, but that just means you get to feel smarter than them.

Styx: Master of Shadows is out now and on Steam.

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47 Comments

  1. MasodikTiasma says:

    What happened to the brightness in your screenshots? They’re really light, the second and third picture especially, the walls of the castle look almost white.

    • Rizlar says:

      Goblins have good vision in the dark?

    • Zallgrin says:

      I think he changed the brightness too much, which I suppose is valid choice to make. Makes things easier to spot, but the mood is kinda ruined.

      • Graham Smith says:

        When I first started playing, yeah, I threw the brightness way up. I couldn’t see anything on screen otherwise, which mostly had to do with the position of the sun outside my window. I turned it down later.

  2. Bravado says:

    Is it really more comfortable to play with a controller? I could never stop using the keyboard and mouse, but whatever…

  3. Creeping Death says:

    “it costs £25/$25”

    Wow… that’s some good currency conversion there.

    • Stevostin says:

      Same as ever: one price has some form of VAT. $ prices never do.

      • Zanchito says:

        This is actually incorrect too, as VAT varies from country to country, and the general translation of 1$=1$ never ever coincides with real exchange rate+VAT. It’s just plain old price gouging.

    • Detocroix says:

      That actually is false. The pricing is as follows £19.99, $23.99. €23.99. In this case euro for dollar, but pound gets special treatment.

      • slerbal says:

        It’s only the cheaper price for a few more days until it goes up to its official price (£24.99 in the UK) on the 13th (before inevitable sales, of course!)

  4. neofit says:

    The game is on my wishlist and I came here to get an opinion. Some things I noticed:

    * You don’t seem to be enthused by this being a strictly stealth game; there is this bit of criticism of the current trend to add a lot of combat to supposedly stealth games, but overall I got the feeling that you aren’t much into stealth either

    * You imply that Cyanide’s previous corridor games were fun, or at least more interesting to squeeze oneself through than this, which I read elsewhere to be an “open-world” game

    * You are playing with a gamepad, booh

    * You seem weirded out by the need and even the possibility to manually save the game from time to time. Tip Of The Hat for mentioning the save system, albeit inadvertantly.

    * I sensed a bit of criticism towards Dishonored, re-booh AND Wag of the Finger

    * All in all, you don’t seem to like it very much

    Conclusion: high probability that I will enjoy it ;). Don’t tell me I am wrong on the items above, I probably am and will figure it out if I re-read the article, but I have being lazy as an excuse.

    No mention of collecting crap, which is good, it points towards them having actual content. From the Steam forums I gathered that the game has save-anywhere with quicksaving, so that’s one deal-breaker out of the way. Unlike the Dark Souls and the Mordors it does not *require* a gamepad and works well with a mouse and keyboard setup, so another deal-breaker out of the way. One thing left to figure out, and the mention of “holding the right trigger” reminded me of it: is this one of these games where one has to constantly keep the “Stealth” key pressed? Please someone confirm me the presence of a Stealth toggle.

    • Zallgrin says:

      The crouch key is triggered once and does NOT need to be held down all the time. You can additionally use Shift to go slower and to make less noise, but that is rarely needed.

      Also, in my opinion Styx works perfectly with mouse and keyboard and gamepad is probably only detrimental to the experience. Grabbing ledges and metal-hooks is sometimes tricky, but there are a few very simple things to consider in order to do it right:

      1. When jumping from metal-hook to a wooden beam nearby, face the camera towards the beam, otherwise Styx won’t grab it.
      2. If you want to step of a ledge and hang from it, you need to press down Shift while walking off the platform. That will make it impossible to fall down.

      That’s probably the biggest problem people have with Styx. I wish it was communicated better, but in the end it wasn’t very hard to learn.

      Last thing, I am quite surprised you did not mention the occasional puzzles and the neat small chambers hidden everywhere. Some of them are really well designed and usually require using your clone and your brains to solve them. I loved each one of them, though not have been able to figure out or reach every single one.

      The second last thing, the levels are huge and sprawling both horizontally and vertically. Three-five levels up and down are the norm and you will traverse all of them in order to reach your objective. Never played a game with level design such as this! It’s great for an explorer like me.

    • Graham Smith says:

      You will probably like it. I won’t tell you where you’re wrong though, as requested. ;)

      Holding the right trigger was to press against a wall, and that’s not often necessary. As Zallgrin said, crouching is a toggle.

      There’s a bit of collection stuff, which is noted on mission complete screens. It’s a little reward for exploring and nothing as overwhelming as, say, Ubisoft’s collection mechanics.

    • Soleyu says:

      One thing that Graham pointed out about the game, is that once discovered and they get too close, the game locks you into combat. That for me is a problem, a “pure” stealth game should allow you to use stealth to deal with combat, instead of forcing you to fight, maybe use a smoke bomb or something, to escape or perhaps distract them in order to better position yourself to win.

      One of the basic ideas of combat in games is to let you feel like a badass when fighting, but there are other ways to do that while keeping the theme of the game, after all winning a battle by outsmarting your opponent is also pretty awesome. A game can be focused solely on stealth, but forcing you to fight goes against that, and consequently dilutes the idea that it’s a pure stealth game.

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        Wowbagger says:

        And thus the quicksave feature was born.

        • Deadly Habit says:

          You save scummer you! Great review Graham pushed me into buying it. Me and Cyanide have a love hate relationship lately. Game of Thrones RPG was a flawed gem that I’d rate very highly, but the of Orcs and Men game that Styx was born of was just plain crap. Hoping this is the hardcore stealth game I’ve been waiting on since can only play The Dark Mod so much.

      • reggiep says:

        How dare you question the master of stealth! He is hundreds of years old. He made it this far without smoke bombs. /s

      • Noimydne says:

        It sounds like playing on the hardest difficulty was a good decision since it never locks you in combat(other than during tutorial), only throwing knives and hidden clones can kill enemies chasing you.

      • Nixitur says:

        Yes, this design decision also completely baffles me.
        Why would Styx be locked into combat? What reason does he have to stand around and engage in a fair fight?
        Apparently, the hardest difficulty completely gets rid of the combat which sounds way better.

        Since I really liked Mark Of The Ninja which is also mostly about avoiding combat and hiding bodies, this seems like a game I’d enjoy.

  5. vecordae says:

    ‘Ere’s wot Oi fink:

    S’not orky enuff.

  6. Monkeh says:

    I’m actually quite itching for a bigger and better sequel and therefore hope this one will sell at least well enough to warrant a sequel. IMO the level design is fantastic and the only thing really holding it back is the quite dumb AI (though it’s not like most other stealth games do have great AI) and the fact you’re locked into combat whenever you’re spotted and the enemy is within a certain proximity of you. In most cases it’s still very much possible to run away and escape when spotted (especially when using the invisibility skill), but you’ll have to not run past any [other] enemies (with invisibility on you can just walk past alarmed guards of course).

  7. Premium User Badge

    caff says:

    I was sort of interested in this – but yes, very unfortunate release timing. Just nearing completing Dead Rising 3, about to start Alien: Isolation, and prepping Mordor for later in the month. Why did all these titles come along at once. I remember the good old days when no-one bought any PC games and we were desperately scrabbling around for indie games to play.

  8. Suopis says:

    The game is solid. I really like it.

    Controls are very easy and intuitive – everything you would expect from a stealth game. Keyboard and mouse works perfect. There are secrets scattered around and objects to pick up. Puzzle rooms are a blast.

    This game does not teach you everything. You have to find out the uses for various things on your own. Especially the clone.

    Level design is cool, the verticality of it is stunning. There are multiple ways to solve a room – poisoning people in it for example, without getting personal.

    Not a bad game at all.

  9. AngoraFish says:

    Thank god it at least HAS a save option.

  10. jonahcutter says:

    I found the game better than the price. Big, intricate, vertical levels. Charming protagonist. Decent amount of depth.

    I like that when you’re standing on a rafter or something else high up, you can fall off if you screw up. You’re not stuck to it by the game mechanics. Even though third-person, it’s an FPS feel to the controls that way. The trickiest bit is getting used to dropping off a ledge. Shift key while moving forward and releasing when the fall animation works every time I do it right. When I miss, it’s just me. But it did take some getting used to. In the game’s defense, it does say this in the tutorial. But the text does go by damn quick and could be easy to miss.

    I like the de-emphasis on combat. You’re a little gobo, not a warrior. The “Goblin” mode even makes it that one shot kills you. It’s a nice counterpoint to Mordor, where combat is such a strong element.

    It’s a great deal and well worth it for anyone that wants a very solid stealth game, with an unusual and fun protagonist and setting.

  11. slerbal says:

    Interesting, the comments above all give me the sense that this is very much my kind of game (as did the review – though it is apparent it isn’t Graham’s kind of game). I thinksie I shall getsie :)

    • derbefrier says:

      same here. This sounds like a blast.

    • FriendlyFire says:

      Perhaps I’m cynical, but I’m always a bit cautious when I see overtly gushing comments coming from posters I do not recognize, especially when they clash heavily with the WIT.

      It may well be better than what Graham said, but I’d take the comments with a grain of salt.

      • welverin says:

        Your the second person to at least imply Graham didn’t like it, and the fact he seems to have focused more on negatives than anything else, but I think the following two quotes show he actually did like it inspite of all of that.

        “Development company Cyanide have long been purveyors of interesting-but-guff fantasy games. Styx: Master of Shadows turns out to be their least-interesting-but-most-good.”

        and

        “But sometime five or ten years from now you’ll be talking about stealth games with a friend and you’ll go, “Oh, hey, remember Styx? That was pretty good.”

        Your friend probably won’t have played it, but that just means you get to feel smarter than them.”

        • Graham Smith says:

          Yeah, I like the game. I think it’s good, I had fun playing it, though certain flaws meant it was also frustrating and a little tired by the end. I also love stealth games, though I’m probably less excited by ‘traditional hardcore stealth game’ than a lot of other people would be.

          But – *puts on editor hat* – part of the job a review should perform is to give readers the tools needed to disagree with the writer. In the review above, I’m trying to explain how I feel about Styx and back that up with evidence, but also giving people who /do/ love traditional or hardcore stealth games a wink to let them know they might like it better than I did. That’s why the second paragraph is what it is, and why it’s above the tag.

          So people reading the review as negative probably means I fucked up with word choice or tone somewhere along the way, but that they can tell that they’d like it more than me probably means that something else went right.

          I find these interesting things to think about, so thanks everyone for commenting/humouring this comment.

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            Wowbagger says:

            I’m more distracted by your lustrous beard and hair combo.

          • slerbal says:

            I thought it was a good review, especially as it gave me a sense of what you personally enjoy/dislike. That is always a good thing as it gives me a benchmark on how I might find the same situations. RPS is really good at that and is frankly the only place I trust the reviews from (I hate scores) :)

            The main thing I got was that it sounds interesting, but perhaps I should approach with a bit of caution and possibly a cheaper price.

            Thanks Graham :)

          • jonahcutter says:

            I thought the article got your points across very well. I came away from reading it with the sense of your layered reaction.

            That said, this:

            “You’re not going to love Styx. It’s not the kind of game you’re going to be itching for a sequel to.”

            is a pretty big presumption on your part. Telling everyone else the reaction they’ll have. That’s the only part I thought was a bit of a fumble and out of place with the rest of the reasoned tone.

          • Damien Stark says:

            Excellent response and great WIT. Interesting to hear a bit of your thought process there.

            I have noticed a trend in RPS in the past year or so – across multiple RPS writers, not just one personality – of writing reviews that are 80% complaints/criticisms then closing with “but actually I quite liked it!” So in the conventional Game Review Journalism 1.0 this would have been a 7/10 or 8/10 and most of the readers would have just skipped down to that part and ignored all the verbal reservations.

            I can see why some are frustrated by this RPS style of “negative tone on a positive review”, but as an engineer at heart it makes sense to me. I don’t need a cheerleader to hype me up about a game – there’s plenty of marketing out there to do that job. I’d rather have RPS warn me about the pitfalls, and if I’m comfortable dismissing them all (You have to quicksave instead of checkpoint! It’s a stealth game that actually requires stealth instead of fun combat!) then I feel all the more informed and reassured.

      • slerbal says:

        If you are talking about me: I’ve been posting on RPS since it started and I’ve had my games reviewed on this site and done Q&As (before I left the industry). As for the other comments, most seem to be by posters I recognise, but some caution is always a good thing.

        The Steam Community discussions for Styx had some mighty fishy posts from 0 Level steam members with private profiles with remarks about how “amazing the price” is and other PR bait.

        But… this game still looks intriguing, though whether it is £20 or £25 “intriguing” is another matter.

  12. AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

    Welp, looks like it’s a Cyanide game after all.

  13. XhomeB says:

    Very tempted to buy this, it seems there’s a lot to like here (yay for big, apparently quite “open” level design), but this WOT pretty much confirms what I’ve heard already – that the second half of the game makes you go through already finished levels in reverse… That’s kind of… lazy? Or maybe they ran out of development time & money?
    Is it really as bad as it sounds?

  14. Premium User Badge

    Oakreef says:

    “You’re not going to love Styx.”

    I dunno they said the same thing to me about Alone in the Dark 2008 and Game of Thrones. In any case, don’t tell me what I’m going to love. You’re not my mam!

  15. cob59 says:

    “That flaw is the controls.”
    I really disagree with this part.

    It seems ledge-grabbing is a problem for a lot of people but, really, as it’s been answered above, you just have to walk slowly and everything’s fine. I’m using a gamepad, but I never had any problem with the ledges, even though I would have prefered a button to trigger it more explicitly like in Assassin’s Creed.
    But speaking of AC, I really enjoyed the fact they didn’t implement that fully automatic parkour/climbing feature that would have completely ruined the platformer part. There are auto-jumps between hooks (A button) but most of the time, you jump from a ledge to another with a REAL platformer gameplay, where a mistake in your timing/angle means falling and sometimes death.

    So yeah, I didn’t see any major flaws with the controls.

    The major one IMO, is the fighting part: you are locked to your opponent! What is this nonsense?
    When a guard spots me and 4 of his friends are on their way I don’t want to waste my time killing him, I want to flee the quicker I can!

    PS: I discovered after a few chapters that you can quicksave/quickload. After that, the game became easier and a bit less thrilling, of course. You don’t have to play it careful between 2 distant checkpoints… Not sure this feature was a great idea.

  16. RegisteredUser says:

    Thank heavens there are still games that have anytime saves.

  17. Metalhead9806 says:

    If you play on goblin difficulty and invest skill points in stealth kills Styx isnt a bad game. Im about 7 hours in and really enjoying myself.

    Its kind of a slow burn really. While i will agree some of the controls are odd and have lead to a few deaths overall once you get rid of that lame face to face combat (goblin difficulty) and invest in stealth kill skills like killing enemies from above, off ledges Styx or from hidden areas becomes one of the better stealth games to release in a while.

  18. MaxMcG says:

    The controls are stealthy too. F5 quicksaves. F9 quickloads.

  19. statistx says:

    The issue with Cyanide games in general is, that they tend to paint interesting unique worlds and characters with some ambitious ideas around it, but in the end you often times feel the budgetory restrictions and ….not trying to sound mean….skill maybe? I fairly enjoyed older titles, but I’m always torn between “I’d rather watch a Let’s play of it instead” and “Ok, let’s keep playing”

  20. Alextended says:

    I’m only in the beginning stages but so far this at least seems better than the last couple of Thief games. I just wish they had gone all the way and had you manually aim things like your water arrows. I’m sorry, I mean the mud you throw to douse distant torches. The way they chose to do it feels rather cheap and takes from the mood even if technically the result is the exact same. But I feel that had they gone the extra mile to make interesting immersing mechanics even for the smaller gameplay elements this could almost become a far better successor to classics like Thief than the “real” sequels. It’s still better than those but it’s not close enough to the originals. I’ve not had issues with the controls myself. I’m also using a gamepad though I don’t think there would be a problem using the keyboard and mouse for this game (it might even be easier with the preset digital walk/run speeds vs trying to lightly nudge the analog stick when you want to go slower to drop and hang off ledges).

  21. PixelBrady says:

    Glad to see you posted a pretty fair and balanced review, despite the fact that stealth games pretty obviously aren’t your thing.
    I really like that it focussed itself so much on a stealth experience and no other, since Assassin’s Creed tried to be a stealth/combat game and about eight minutes in became a combat game wearing a stealth-flavoured hood.

    I’ve not yet had any troubles with controls or ledges, but perhaps that’s due to controllers; I find the key/mouse extremely cooperative and haven’t had a problem doing anything other than getting out of combat. Dropping down ledges and hanging on is pretty much just down to shift+walking off the edge slowly and he’ll hang on, and escaping combat is just rolling backwards a couple of times to break the lock.

    As far as the upgrades go, you said they stop becoming interesting because they never make you feel truly powerful; honestly, this is what makes me think you’re missing the point behind why fans of the genre love stealth so much. It’s not about feeling powerful in a combat sense, otherwise there’d be no need for stealth.

    Assassin’s Creed made you feel powerful because you can easily kill anyone you find, so why bother hiding?
    Sam Fisher kicks over tables and guns everyone down, why bother with stealth?
    Batman punches anyone he doesn’t like, what’s the need to sneak around?

    Styx is a tiny goblin who relies on lethal stabs and surprise kills; he certainly can kill anyone he wants dead, but why bother killing everyone, why go to that extra effort when you can just ghost past them without them ever knowing you were there?
    They made upgrades but knew when to stop themselves from just giving Styx that “powerful” feel that might make you wonder if there’s any need to bother being stealthy. Many designers these days don’t notice that threshold and upgrades quickly just turn the game into Marcus Fenix’s version of stealth.

    There is still a sense of power knowing you can go from A to B, kill your target, take your toy and leave without anyone ever having noticed your presence. To me, that feels a lot more empowering than walking in with a chain gun and pressing X to make everyone fall over.