Wot I Think – Styx: Shards Of Darkness

A few years ago, I probably would have forgiven Styx: Shards of Darkness [official site] a multitude of sins (and though there is not a multitude, there is one honking great sin). A proper stealth game that isn’t low-rent or poorly balanced, with a choice of paths and abilities but which doesn’t devolve into routine action – we didn’t used to get too many of them.

Recent times have given us new Dishonoreds and Deus Exes and Metal Gear Solids and Hitmen, endless Assassin’s Creeds and even a so-so Thief, the game Styx most resembles. Hell, even the new Zelda game has a functional stealth element to it. We are spoilt for stealth choice, and that makes this fantasy wall-hugging sequel a tough sell. What it’s got on its side is purity. What it has against it is its lead character.

To get it out the way, no prior experience of the first Styx game is required to understand what’s going on here. I have not played Cyanide’s 2014 game myself, and though there is a glossing over of the setup – a fantasy world in which goblins are an animalistic pest in the world of man, but one, Styx, is intelligent – there was nothing truly unclear. The little bastard’s a thief, goddit.

He’s also a Thief, with Styx’s core being based heavily on the Looking Glass stealth classic – navigate around a large area, stick to the shadows, climb over and around get the loot, get out, and if you’re caught you’re almost certainly dead. However, where Thief broadly keeps its fantasy low (i.e. trick arrows and and a tricksier eyeball), Styx spins off into a few more fantastical abilities.

The foremost of these is the heightened mobility that being a beclawed munchkin affords him, so there’s far more climbing and hanging involved here. It’s nothing you’ve not seen in, say Assassin’s Creed, but there’s a definitely a bit more hanging by your fingernails or swinging from convenient ropes than a Dishonored.

More singular is Styx’s ability to vomit up a mindless clone of himself, which he/you can then direct to perform a few basic actions, such as distracting an enemy or knocking something onto them from a great height. Depending on what you pump your upgrade points into, this power can expand to include summoning cloney inside a mid-air cocoon or magically swapping places with him. In terms of opening up new ways to play what’s otherwise quite a familiar game, this is your best option.

Other tricks primarily relate to various consumables, from the obvious deadly dart to short-term invisibility potions to an acid solution that dissolves bodies on the spot. The skill tree’s big enough that one playthrough will only snag you a portion of its branches, and really that’s the biggest draw here – flexibility in how you play, but always within the boundaries of a fairly pure stealth game.

While Dishonored, Deus Ex, MGSV and even Hitman to a very slight extent offer the option to be a mass murderer in broad daylight, in Styx you might survive one or two fights against a lone opponent, but generally speaking getting seen means becoming a greenskin rug. Which is to say, if you object to the presence of open combat options in your stealth games, you’ll probably get a lot out of Styx. This is a game about the art of not being seen, and not really one of madcap improv if you are.

Escape is eminently possible thanks to Styx’s mobility, and that leads to the age-old ‘must have been rats’ reset after the murderous guards’ alert timers cool off, but running and hiding is pretty much your only option. Even then, the game so loudly declares that you’ve screwed the points bonus you get for a perfect run that the temptation to reload is overwhelming. Same goes for killing – although Styx has a whole upgrade path dedicated to silent assassination, you miss out on points for mercy if you avail yourself of your weapons.

Now, usually I gravitate towards non-lethal options in stealth games. I like the challenge of it, be it avoidance or the generally longer incapacitation sequences involved, and I like the idea that I’m being Not A Bad Dude. The friends and family of a henchman, and all that. In Styx, however, absolutely everyone is so hateful that I simply do not give a shit. Kill ’em all. They’re all shits. It’s so much easier. Shame about those experience points, mind you.

We’re shown a world in which most humans blindly murder goblinkind, and though Styx is the only one of them who can speak or, seemingly, think, this attitude stinks enough that I lose all my usual hesitation about bloodshed. What is mercy for here?

The flipside of this is that no-one in the game is more hateful than Styx himself. Perhaps some will lap up the banal venom of his humour, but for me it’s a significant misfire, to the point that I struggled to enjoy a game I otherwise would have done.

I suspect the game’s creators believe that, in their fourth-wall breaking, wisecracking, sneering protagonist, they’ve made Fantasy Deadpool. He chastises the player for their failings, he makes references to films and other games and pizza, he questions the likelihood that the person who bought this game will ever find a sexual partner, he insults the developers’ wisdom and talents. (Never do this in your game unless you are supremely confident your game is basically perfect, otherwise you are essentially telling the player that, yes, they’ve just wasted their money).

This kind of humour is playing with fire at the best of times, and Styx is very much not the best of times. The gags are incredibly broad and obvious, some of the terminology is simply insulting without being funny enough to get away with it (e.g. a woman’s weight is repeatedly mocked), many of the references are outdated and, to make matters worse, the wording often sounds like it ran through Google Translate a couple of times.

To his eternal credit, the guy who lends Styx his salty New Yoik tones is clearly a total pro, lending a certain amount of charisma to the character even though the actual words spoken are purely dreadful. I would buy that man a pint if I ever met him, and then clasp him into a sympathetic hug. Despite my sense that this was a good man in a bad situation, any time I died I found myself desperately hammering F9 in the hope I could quickload before the awful wisecrack-to-camera sequence that follows every death. And therein lies the rub – Styx would be an infinitely better game without Styx.

This is a decent stealth game saddled with wretched characterisation. Insult to injury is that it has all this sub-Deadpool bollocks while at the same time offering a deeply dour fantasy story that we’re supposed to take seriously. Once in a while, Styx’s scoffing dismissal of all the magic wank is a blessed relief, but the trouble is that then the magic wank proceeds to wank on and on anyway. This is a game that’s having its wank-cake and wanking it.

The stealth game underneath this miserable skin is solid. Often very flashy too, in its environments, range of powers and choice of routes, but undermining that sometimes severely is that its Assassin’s Creed-style ‘jump from a ledge or wall to somewhere else’ system misfires frequently.

Too often, I plunged to my death purely because Styx did not leap to the handhold he either either appeared to be reaching for or was the only logical place to go. It’s not quite so unreliable as to make the game consistently frustrating, but something there is seriously in need of a fix. I learned to speculatively quicksave my way around it, which isn’t ideal but was enough to let me keep thinking that this is a solid pure-breed stealth game.

Personally, I prefer the option for improv more than I do fealty to pure hide-or-die stealth, but it’s clear that this has put the work into making its sneaking work. Though generally saddled with a muddy aesthetic, it makes a reasonable fist of varied environments and scattering optional, harder sub-goals across them. It’ll keep you busy and, particularly if you’re playing non-lethal, demands careful planning and thought.

There isn’t ever the magic puzzle-box feel of a Dishonored or the shocks of Thief in its bravura moments, but it mixes up its environments plenty. There’s plenty of the ‘hmm, now how can I get into there?’ of a Splinter Cell or Deus Ex.

Clearly, a lot of money and skill has gone into making Shards Of Darkness, which only makes the fact that you have to battle past this woeful characterisation to get to the strong stealth meat below all the more tragic. Give me a mod that lets me turn off Styx’s comments and I’ll like it a whole lot more. Until then, Styx out of ten.

Styx: Shards of Darkness is out today on Windows via Steam and Humble for £35/$40/€40.

38 Comments

  1. arhaine says:

    The first Styx was not a perfect game, but a game I still enjoyed when I got in on PS+ Game of the Month. And the protagonist was the precise reason this game actually had some character to it. I will definitely check out the second one when it’s on sale.

  2. Lars Westergren says:

    > This is a game that’s having its wank-cake and wanking it.

    Bless.

    I have a pretty high tolerance for annoying characters and forth wall breaking, and ever since the orc cliff levels in Dark Messiah of Might and Magic I’ve been wanting to play another game with luscious vertigo-inducing high fantasy environments, so I think I’ll get this.

    • Darth Gangrel says:

      RPS complained about Adam Jensen being a dull character, but all I thought about when playing was the fun toolbox I could use. Who cares about characterization when you can slapstick kill someone with a vending machine?

      Same thing here, the options, environments and gameplay seem solid, so I don’t care about whether Styx as a character is good. As a matter of fact, I quite enjoy fourth wall breaking, references and bad jokes.

  3. Donkeyfumbler says:

    If it’s as bad as you say, then let’s hope they do add the option to turn the comments off – should be easy enough to code.

    That said, I’ve just started Hitman having finished Deus Ex: MD over the weekend (and Dishonored 2 before that) so it will be a while before I feel the need for another stealth game.

  4. Michael Fogg says:

    I liked the first game quite a lot, sneaking around and using the grand illusion to find all the pieces of eight. Too bad it felt you almost needed a crystal ball to predict if there was a guard around a corner.

  5. geisler says:

    Deadpool-like characterisation, what a waste. Think i’ll drink a few kegs of Styx wash and forget all about this franchise.

    • Nibblet says:

      But what can change the nature of a game developer if not a bad review?
      Perhaps the berks at cyanide will rattle their collective brain box and fire the barmy blood who wrote this.

      • Fadaz says:

        Planescape fan, are we?

        • geisler says:

          Who isn’t? Here’s the chant cutter: People should play Planescape Torment at least once before they’re put in the dead-book, lest they never learn how characterisation should be done.

  6. Halk says:

    We are spoilt for stealth choice, and that makes this fantasy wall-hugging sequel a tough sell.

    This game has got one of the best things in life: full coop! How brilliant is that.

    Doesn’t such a rare thing deserve a mention in the review?

    • Aldehyde says:

      Yeah, that was what actually got me interested in the sequel. The first was okay but nothing that made me want more.

      Seems like an odd thing to leave out.

  7. napoleonic says:

    “This is a game that’s having its wank-cake and wanking it.”

    Is wank-cake similar to soggy biscuit?

    • ooshp says:

      More like a profiterole filled with blue-vein custard, I would imagine.

  8. RedViv says:

    That is not even sub-Deadpool. This sounds like sub Family Guy. Yikes.

  9. nanotechnics says:

    Fair review Alec. Exactly what i thought watching this game’s trailer, they made Styx quite annoying with his voice and humor. An unlikable protagonist is not a good idea for a character driven game.

  10. Palimpsest says:

    I’ll most likely never play this, so someone needs to write out the fat woman jokes for me.

    • grandstander says:

      “Your weight is higher than that of the average woman, and that is funny”

      “Your extra weight is unattractive and you should exercise more so you are more attractive”

      “I would not have sexual intercourse with you due to how much you weigh”

      Get it?

  11. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    It’s a bit odd that you’re generally fine with murdering people but get upset that they call a woman fat.

    That said, yeah, the protagonist sounds not funny. I’m not fond of fourth wall breaking in otherwise serious stories. If the protagonist isn’t supposed to be from some other world, then they need to stay in their own world. Referencing pizza and saying ‘dude’ and crap… nah.

    Too bad. The central conceit of a stealth game where you play as a goblin sounded sorta fun.

    • Boozebeard says:

      Killing a fantasy character, for fantasy reasons, to reach fantasy goals is not in any way comparable to mocking a characteristic shared by real life human-beings. Just as it would not go down well to make a game about killing black characters, because you don’t like black people and want to eradicate all the black people.

      • Palimpsest says:

        Comparing being black to being fat

      • Holderist says:

        That was more or less the controversy surrounding one of the Resident Evil games which had its setting in Africa. People said it was racist to kill black zombies.

        • Coming Second says:

          They might have gotten away with it if, ah, the main protagonist wasn’t white.

          • Premium User Badge

            Martell says:

            I think the main issue with RE5 isn’t the fact that the enemies were black. It’s the fact that halfway through the game, everyone went full on Shaka Zulu on you, spears and feathered headdresses and all.

            There IS a lore piece handwaving all that away, but it basically amounted to “I got bitten, I feel like biting people now, and also I somehow want to culturally regress 200 years.”

            I don’t know, it’s like setting a game in New Jersey in 2010 where the first half everything’s normal, then suddenly everyone’s a wiseguy and wears fedoras, broad-lapeled suits and broader accents.

  12. Iaksones says:

    I think the review fits the score pretty well, but I am a man that would be sorely tempted to say it was “Styx out of ten” regardless of how I really felt.

  13. Stevostin says:

    I am pretty sure I’ve never seen a fat joke on a fat man having the same impact on a review here.

    • Premium User Badge

      kfix says:

      Ah yes, those six brief parenthetical words. You poor soul, were you triggered?

    • Already Gone says:

      I admit that I decided not to renew my Supporter subscription because of that “excitable corpulent YouTubers” comment in the Prey retrospective. I’m a fat man with fat loved ones and I don’t need to pay for the privilege of being someone’s low-hanging comedic fruit.

      • April March says:

        I’m a fat man with fat loved ones and I think “excitable corpulent Youtubers” is a brilliant comedic line. It conjures a very specific kind of person and I can’t read it as “ha ha, those people are fat” as much as an three objective qualities of a very specific kind of person (that I wouldn’t even describe as fat – ‘thick’ seems a more fitting word). But to each his own. Personally, I don’t subscribe because I can’t afford to.

      • Premium User Badge

        kfix says:

        Here’s the actual sentence:

        “It looks like something from one of those knock-off Steam releases that get excitable corpulent YouTubers overly worked up.”

        That was written by someone (John) who could be fairly described (based on photographs on this site) as corpulent (as am I, if it matters). If there is mockery there, then it’s gentle and more about the excitable nature of the gentleman concerned and particularly the targets he chooses than it is about the physical characteristics. The word is only there to make sure you know exactly who John is talking about, and it serves the purpose well without being nasty.

        I’m sure you’re not hypocritically trolling like some other comments here, but I do think that’s being hypersensitive. I won’t judge you for that – in my younger days I was well hypersensitive myself after years of bullying based (in part) on my weight, and I still have mild social anxiety at times – but a little more generosity towards other people’s intentions before taking offence might be a healthier attitude to adopt.

        • Already Gone says:

          I’m under no obligation to be charitable, psychically or financially, to John Walker. I don’t agree with your reading of the bit in question*, and thus I choose to put my dollars elsewhere. I still quite like a lot of the content on this site, but I consider my pageviews to be payment enough for a site that employs some writers that I am fond of and at least one who makes me uncomfortable.

          (*If anything, I think it more likely that John was jabbing at Jim Sterling, given that they’d had a curt back-and-forth around that time.)

          • Premium User Badge

            kfix says:

            No one is under obligation to be charitable. Doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be better for it.

  14. rb207 says:

    Good review! I played the original game and agree with many of the points. I love this genre and its a shame if a game could be better with better acting and scripting.

  15. DeadlyxElements says:

    This review is terrible and misleading. You talk about the skills, yet ignore the fact that Styx can “forget” any skills used, which allows you to swap your playstyle every mission, and alter what perks you have. I have yet to hear an actual weight joke towards a female. He says giant bitch multiple times but that’s because he’s half her fucking size. It’s height not weight you incompetent reviewer.

    • LessThanNothing says:

      Super weird response. You just couldn’t control yourself enough not to comment?

  16. eXeonical says:

    I assume the criticism about weight jokes is about the character Helledryn referred by Styx as a “Big Girl”. However i felt that Helledryn was portrayed as a “Head Taller” than the men around her, so i did not feel that it was about her weight. I’m not a native English speaker, so maybe i missed something that was automatically read into it by Alec?

    Styx I found to be a likable asshole. Also found the death animations funny. One thing i noticed is that those animations somehow removed the insta-death rage i feel in some games. Good thing also, because i did a LOT or reloading.

    Anyway, i liked the satire/sarcastic high fantasy world, but i guess that is matter of taste?

  17. evogelion says:

    What I have to say is you should really play the other two games that involve Styx before you do a game review. Sloppy…
    You know why reviews suck? Its one man’s opinion over another’s. Game is fun, for me at least and I like the character Styx. Maybe you’e to far deep in the mainstream stealth games and judge too harshly? Yeah you probably are doing that right now…and for the rest of you.. ask your mommies to let you have $40 to buy this game so you have a right of making dumb comments at least.