He’s back, green and mean and sexier than ever. It’s Styx, the Master of Shadows and now he’s set his eyes on something more dangerous than amber. This is Styx: Shards of Darkness.
Developer: Cyanide Studio
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release Date: Mar 2017
Played Main Story
Purchase At: Steam
I played Styx: Master of Shadows a few years ago, even reviewed it for another site, and I really enjoyed it, so when I learned of this sequel coming out, I got my hands on it on launch date.
Styx: Shards of Darkness opens with the goblin thief in his hometown, leaving his hideout for another job, stealing the local guards’ pay. After a successful job leaving the CARNAGE squad without their payday—serves them right, the dirty Goblin hunters—Styx returns home to find their captain waiting for him, not to kill him but to offer him a job, with a vast amount of amber as his pay.
The job gets complicated as it usually happens and so they end up in the capital of the Dark Elf kingdom in pursuit of a shapeshifting member of this race. There is a summit happening, with representatives of all races here to meet with the Dark Elf ruler, a woman who keeps the race enslaved with a mind link fortified by amber, the same substance that flows through Styx and other goblins’ veins.
Infiltrating the summit on the hunt for the shapeshifter Djarak, reveals the true purpose of the negotiations and just what the Dark Elves are hiding and though at first Styx wants nothing more than paying the shapeshifter back for his interference on his job, events force him to take a direct stab at the situation and dismantle the Dark Elf ploy.
I liked the plot for Styx: Shards of Darkness. At the start, you don’t really know much of what’s going on and Styx doesn’t seem to care, focused on revenge against the shapeshifter, but bit by bit you discover more of what’s going on in the Dark Elf capital, with the last few twists revealing why they’re so focused on buying captured goblins from other kingdoms, when the green-skinned race is considered a plague all over the world.
The twist itself is pretty damn dark, fitting for the overall dark view of fantasy present in the Styx universe but also for the race that came up with the thing. I loved it and what I liked the most is that it effects a change in Styx’ behaviour, in his view of his life and even his desire for amber.
The one thing I don’t like though is how unsatisfying the ending is in Styx: Shards of Darkness. You spend the last level fighting a boss—well, not exactly a boss, just a big giant monster you need to avoid until you reach the “boss is dead” point of the map—and at this point there are still some loose threads in the story, but instead of continuing, the game ends with a cliffhanger, with Styx and another character having a showdown…which you don’t play through.
My reaction was “that’s it?” and I’m still not over it, because Styx: Shards of Darkness had me hooked. It has solid stealth mechanics. It’s easy to know when you’re messing up, when you’re being too noisy and when you’re just doing things properly, ninja-style. But better than that, if you know the movement patters for the guards and keep an eye out for hideouts, you don’t even need to sneak through and there are always alternative paths to where you’re going. It’s the right kind of stealth, giving you multiple options to fit your playstyle.
In fact, Styx: Shards of Darkness encouraged me to change things up occasionally, to just run, full pelt towards the gap, land on the roof of a tower and climb my way down, instead of sneaking across the ground floor avoiding the guards.
To encourage this freedom in approach, the levels have a wonderful verticality to them. They’re all designed in multiple floors, with challenges and guard rotations in each but with ways to reach the top from even the lowest of floors, though with about the same number of potential pitfalls. All maps in Styx are sprawling towns and cities, which helps mitigate the recycling of the environments.
In Styx: Shards of Darkness you will visit every location at least twice, from the home town to the Dark Elves’ innermost sanctums. But because of the multilayered level design, each time you’ll explore a different section and there will differences in guard rotations and placements, even if it means a few more of those annoying Roabies—giant and blind cockroaches with super-hearing.
Still, I would have liked to see a few more environments, some variation from the formula of stone building and wooden shanty town, which is about the only thing you see in Styx. How about a few more levels in one-off locations like the kind the second mission takes place in. That mission has you infiltrating a sky-ship fleet in flight. It was awesome.
One thing I have mixed feelings about is the ranking system. In Styx: Shards of Darkness, you can craft items and buy new skills for Styx. The crafting depends on materials found throughout the world, and which I never had much luck with, since I didn’t explore that much and focused on the tasks at hand.
The skills, however, tie directly to completing main and optional objectives and attaining high ranks in the games four tiers: Swiftness for completing the levels quickly enough, Mercy for killing the least number of enemies, Thief for collecting all the doodads and thingamajigs in a level and Shadow for avoiding detection. These four start at gold rank and your screw-ups lower the level.
On one hand, I love how much replayability the ranks add to Styx: Shards of Darkness, giving you something to strive for on future playthroughs, but on the other, it feels at times as though the game punishes you for using your skills and equipment, particularly when it comes to killing enemies. One of the skills I unlocked at one point was a special dagger which gave me amber for each kill, but if I were to use it, it would mean lowering my Mercy score. Sometimes I would get detected and die right afterwards, only to discover that on reloading the last save, the loss of rank in Shadow would still be there, even if I had been sent to the start of the level.
Sometimes, the ranks feel like restrictions placed on a game that is already doing its best to give you freedom of choice when it comes to your playthrough and play style.
Speaking of death, every time you bite the dust, Styx comes out and berates you in a short cutscene, which will be instantly familiar to everyone who’s ever played the Arkham Batman series. While these start out fine and fun, there are so few individual scenes that you’ll have seen them all fairly quickly—unless you never die, which is unlikely considering how challenging Styx: Shards of Darkness can be—and they’ll quickly lose their charm. By the end of the game I mashed the skip button whenever I died, just so I wouldn’t have to listed to Styx trash talk me anymore. Would’ve been great to have a way to disable these.
Styx: Shards of Darkness is visually stunning, and I really like how realistic the fantasy races look, which is often a challenge, as many designers often exaggerate their features to cartoonish degrees. But in this game, they look amazing, particularly the Dark Elves, their bodies lithe but athletic enough to be believable. Styx and the goblins look great as well, and it’s the type of focus on skeletons, musculature and skin tone and texture that make even these strange creatures believable, as if you could meet them on the street.
I enjoyed the music greatly, even though I had issues with my sound system at first, since the game sent parts of the audio to my back speakers, which I hadn’t set up. But once I did, I truly enjoyed the melodies, particularly the way they transition from passive to active, which is how I call the shift in tempo and tone when someone discovers you. There’s an alarm, an urgency in the music when someone’s after you, as if the game were trying to urge you to find somewhere to hide. It’s great, and adds plenty to the immersion factor.
Voice acting is a bit of a mixed bag though. I loved Styx, his performance having enough cynicism, sarcasm and gravitas to make him believable, to take him seriously, even when he’s on the wrong side of things. The human captain for Carnage, Helledryn, is a wet sponge, her performance lacking the sort of emotional strength you expect from the character based on her body language. Djarak the shapeshifter is a one-trick performance, always sombre and grim and never convincing enough. The Dark Elves come in several shades of “fanatic,” which works but none of them truly stand out.
Styx: Shards of Darkness is a great sequel, building on the success of Master of Shadows and bringing in some great ideas to the table. I particularly love the multi-layered approach to the level design, and would love for more games to follow it, especially if they plan to reuse the maps as often as this game does.
4/5 – Exceptional!