Styx: Master of Shadows: Hidden Quality [Review]

I’m going to start out by saying that I’m not a huge fan of Styx: Master of Shadows. It was frankly hard to get through at times, I’ve spent a lot less time on in than I would any other game I’m reviewing, only about four hours.  I had to debate with myself over whether or not I should even continue on and write about it. Normally I would ignore a game I didn’t like, I’d either let someone else write about it, or let it go unreviewed. Styx however has a lot going for it. It’s not a bad game per se, it’s just a game with some bad features. They’re glaring and fairly numerous, which is unfortunate because Styx has so much potential to be an outstanding game.

Styx: Master of Shadows came out in October of 2014, and recently went free on the Xbox One with Games With Gold. It follows the titular character Styx (who’s a master of shadows) on his journey to the World Tree, the source of the magical substance Amber. A prequel to Of Orcs And Men, Styx is the first goblin to roam the earth and is met less than well by the humans and elves who rule their respective kingdoms and have an unsteady peace.

Let’s start out with the bad, just to get it out of the way. The combat system is by far the worst part of Styx. When stealth falls apart and you have to fight, you enter a one-on-one duel with an enemy. All you can do is either parry or dodge, until the enemy staggers and you can kill him. There’s no prompt to when you should parry, you just have to pay attention to the enemy’s sword to know when to do so. That may not sound bad to some people, lots of gamers are tired of the hand-holding many games do these days, leading to the popularity of series like Dark Souls. But believe me, it’s pretty bad. If you miss a parry you’re probably in trouble, getting hit causes you to stagger a bit and makes subsequent parries even harder. You can get better at combat through skills, but at its base the system is pretty tedious, even if you come out unscathed and victorious.  Oh, and did I mention that while you’re in a duel other enemies will shoot you with crossbows or throw knives at you? Yeah, in your head-to-head duel the other guy has multiple heads.

Combat is by far is the worst perpetrator, and in fact many of the other issues come down to a seemingly low budget. Styx is built in Unreal Engine 3, which was about five years out-of-date by the time the game launched in late 2014. A low budget can be seen in other ways too; the graphics feel like they came from early to mid last-gen, and while the voice acting can be pretty good at times, it’s often not far above the original Resident Evil. Those are fairly excusable, but there are a few more issues that I have some problems with. While the cover system in Styx is generally pretty good, there are a few minor annoyances to it. You can’t sneak around a corner if doing so will take you on to a flight of stairs, and if you want to cross a short gap to another piece of cover you have to get out of cover and cross the gap by walking. Most bafflingly, if you’re hanging from a ledge you can’t go around a corner, meaning you have to climb up and risk being seen.

You'd think Styx would be able to go around this corner. You'd be wrong.
You’d think Styx would be able to go around this corner. You’d be wrong.

So, why do I care about a game that seems to have so many issues? It’s because Styx: Master of Shadows has the makings of an outstanding stealth game, and I adore stealth games. You’ve got your standard stuff, “Amber Vision” highlights enemies and objectives, and hiding bodies stops the guards from going on the alert. You can use Amber to go invisible for a short time, or create a clone to get to unreachable switches or distract enemies. While invisibility takes a significant amount of Amber and can’t always be used, your total Amber level will refill to a minimum point, meaning you always have a clone or Amber Vision at your disposal. Even hiding bodies is more important than most stealth games. It’s not a Splinter Cell level of necessity, but if guards find a body they’ll change their movement patterns and be more alert even when they stop looking for you. It adds some urgency to getting rid of bodies, if you don’t do it you might completely screw up your plans.

There are also some things that you don’t really see in a lot of games, which makes the stealth aspects of Styx even more enjoyable. Jumping down to kill an enemy can cause a lot of noise and you have to do it right, landing on a carpet for example is much quieter than landing on a stone or wood floor. Extinguishable torches are very frequent, and can be put out up close from afar with a glob of wet sand. Putting out lights isn’t a new concept, but it does play a much larger role in Styx than in many other modern stealth games. It’s also possible to peek through keyholes of doors, allowing you to survey the next room and plan accordingly. One of my favourite things about the stealth however, is the difficulty of it. I criticized the difficulty of the combat system earlier,  but that’s because it’s not very well done.

The difficulty in stealth however, is excellent. While the actual sneaking around is about on par difficulty-wise with other games, the time it takes to do things really adds urgency to Styx’s gameplay. Stealth kills in Styx are not instant. You don’t just walk up behind a guard and silently kill them with one stab like Assassin’s Creed, you stab them and hold their mouth shut until they finally die. This means that stealth can actually be detrimental at times. Even though you’ll do a more loud instant kill if you get spotted suffocating an enemy, you’re still a bit tangled up in them and will probably get hit before having a chance to respond. Sometimes killing an enemy quickly and loudly is better, because you’ll have more time to deal with the rest of the guards. Lock picking too takes longer than most games, meaning you can’t just run past enemies, quickly unlock an door, and make it to the safety of the next room. If you have enemies on your tail and a locked door in front of you, you’re in trouble. A silent kill takes about three seconds and a lock pick about five, and while those don’t seem long, they definitely are when you need to finish before a guard spots you.

A quick peek through a door's keyhole will let you survey the next room.
A quick peek through a door’s keyhole will let you survey the next room.

So, should you play Styx: Master of Shadows? If you’re a huge fan of stealth games (and I don’t say “huge fan” lightly), give it a shot. I said in my introduction that parts of it were hard to get through, but it got considerably better once I grabbed a couple of skills and had an easier time avoiding combat. I honestly might continue playing it now, on and off. If you’re not a massive fan of stealth combat, avoid it. You probably won’t enjoy the stealth aspects of the game enough to get through the tediousness of the combat. You might however want to wait for the sequel. Last October, James Orry of videogamer.com reported that a sequel, Styx: Shards of Darkness was in the works, set to come out later this year. Shards of Darkness has a larger budget than Master of Shadows and is built in Unreal Engine 4, which will hopefully deal with the issues of graphics and voice work. Cyanide Studios, the developer of the Styx series, promise that the game will be have better stealth and movement, and with any luck a decent combat system.

Styx: Shards of Darkness is set to come out later this year.

Styx: Master of Shadows is out now for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. Is is available free on the Xbox One through Games with Gold until the 13th of March.

Have you played Styx? What did you think of it?

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