I’ve always been a fan of stealth games and to my mind, the power of the current crop of consoles has afforded this great genre a bit of a resurgence. Styx: Shards of Darkness is probably best described as a ‘Tolkienesque Splinter Cell’. (Would never have predicted writing that in a sentence) Instead of a burly secret agent at its core, Shards of Darkness has a fowl mouthed, fourth wall breaking Goblin – who is short on stature…. and scruples.
Styx made his sneaking debut in 2014 in Master of Shadows, which I loved… until my 80% complete save file was ‘lost’ and I never had the gumption to start all over again. Master of Shadows was met with mediocre reviews which were in fact fair, due to a lack of polish and a bit of jank. Fortunately, Cyanide Studios have doubled down on Styx: Shards of Darkness and have built beautiful multi-path levels, unique skill trees and thankfully this time, enemies with functional A.I.
The core mechanics will be familiar to any fan of stealth games. Hide in the shadows, deal out death to unsuspecting enemies and then vanish back into the darkness. Styx has had a few upgrades from his 2014 outing. Toxic ‘Styx clones’ that can be used as weapons or diversions and with the right skills, as a re-spawn point if he ends up in a dangerous situation. Potion and trap crafting has been expanded and even an invisibility spell, that hits the perfect balance of usability versus costs on resources.
The other major improvement is that Styx can now hold his own in melee combat. And thankfully unlike Master of Shadows, Styx isn’t locked into the melee combat encounter. I could make him flee if loosing and just hide, letting the A.I alert status reset. One of the historic problems of stealth games is the ‘stealth fail state’. One simple mistake ruins a sneaky run-through. Cyanide have combated this with a slick ‘Game Save’ anywhere button. I felt like I was free to experiment and have fun without the risk losing huge swaths of progress. Just tapping ‘right’ on the D-pad and I had Quick Saved….sooo simple! It’s been a staple on PC for years and every console game should now copy this – no menus, no break in play…. just perfect!
Styxs skill trees are upgraded by playing through the game and completing objectives earning Skill Points, which are then spent at the end of a level. Bonus XP can also be earned in four ways. Collecting certain hidden items, beating Par Times, having No Alerts and completing the levels with No Kills. The final bonus objective, No Kills, is a missed step in my opinion. (Bearing in mind there is no option for non-lethal takedowns either) The world is full of food to poison, chandeliers to drop, traps to set and guards to stab. Creating a Bonus XP objective that reduces the fun I could have within a level honestly pissed me off. I wanted to level up and unlock as many different skills as I could, as many of them make Styx a more effective hunter. But trying to get the No Kills bonus meant I couldn’t use many of those skills anyway. The simple inclusion of a XP bonus for -No Kills- was a simplistic way to add complexity, BUT is counter intuitive to the overall fun gameplay design. All in all, after doing a couple of No Kill levels, I bit my lip on the XP I would be missing out on and just got on with the business of murdering, Goblin Styles!
The story is serviceable with Styx initially having an uneasy agreement with a Goblin Hunter, to then later trying to solve the mystery behind an evil alliance of Dwarves and Elves. It’s not an engrossing tale, but it is well explained and gives clear context as to why Styx needs to be sneaking into a particular place. The NPC voice work and character development is a placeholder at best, however Styx himself is a uniquely voiced, very likeable rouge. He often talked to himself and directly to me as the player, breaking the fourth wall.
Upon his death, for whatever reason, a short vignette played where Styx will look out at me, the player, and essentially takes the piss. He had a multitude of smart-ass one liners, like asking to order a pizza or just calling me a useless fuck…..yep you heard right. He on more than one occasion just swore at me and offered advice like, maybe I should try not using my feet on the controller! It’s funny and endearing and if anything, goes to the heart of what Cyanide studios are trying to create. A stealth playground in a dark universe that shouldn’t be taken too seriously, as we are here to just have fun.
Shards of Darkness has unfortunately come out in one of the biggest ‘AAA’ loaded months that I can remember. I’m not going to lament my frustrations on why Cyanide’s publisher has sent this clever little game into the wild amongst such giants of gaming. Simply put, I just hope it is not going to get totally lost amidst the noise of ‘March 2017’, as that would be a tragedy.
Don’t miss this game if you are a stealth fan, Styx: Shards of Darkness is a little bit niche and a whole heap of fun.