Styx: Master of Shadows by Cyanide Studio is in many ways a game that screams out to people like me who fell in love with Dishonored and the Thief series. Focused on stealth with lots of items to steal and many ways to reach the intended destination with a bit of Assassin’s Creed thrown it, Styx has so much for people who want a genuine stealth game in the best spirit of Thief.
Unfortunately, what started as everything I wanted in a stealth game eventually turned into frustration, including a few rage quits. Read on to find out what’s great, what’s not so great, and what’s downright infuriating.
You play Styx, a foul-mouthed goblin in the world of Akenash, which is dominated by humans and elves. At the core of the land is the WorldTree, which is the source of Amber – a magical substance that is for all intents and purposes the game’s version of mana. The WorldTree is also a point of contention between the humans and elves who don’t trust each other at all but still live under a very uneasy truce. Plagued with painful headaches and no memory of what has happened, you work your way through various areas – both indoors and out – to solve the mystery of who you are, who’s responsible for your situation, and who is manipulating the already fragile relationship between the humans and elves. You also have the ability to create clones of yourself to act as distractions or even weapons to take out enemies. And what is that big, glowing tattoo all about?
After each set of missions, which comprise three or four individual levels, you can upgrade various skills with the points that you accumulated. Your perception of your environment and your ability to hide, to upgrade your clones to be their own weapons, and to increase your attack potential when needed can all be upgraded. Optional bonus goals can be completed to give you additional points for upgrading. Not killing anyone (except when part of the mission), achieving secondary objectives, finishing the levels within a certain time frame, collecting coins that are scattered about, finding hidden relics within each level, or getting through the entire mission without any alerts all offer bonus points that you can use to upgrade.
The levels are definitely the high points of the game. All are incredibly well designed for the task at hand. Dark, shadowed areas or high overlooks litter each level; paths contain multiple ways of getting where you need to go; secret areas, coins, and potions are scattered around. Some of the levels take you outdoors into glorious fortresses while other areas are underground, dark, and foreboding. Some of the missions even take place outside on bright, sunny days. Such levels are a wonderful change from dark nights or underground caverns. What’s more, the design and layout of some of the levels are gorgeous to look at. On the outdoor levels, I’d often climb to a high point and look around to take in the view, whether it’s to the perilous depth below or the sunset in the distance. For the most part, I really enjoyed the art direction and the level design.
You can stay on the ground and work your way through shadowy corners or you can parkour to areas high above your enemies. (Most of the time, you need to do both.) Even though you can take an aggressive approach, you are best served by being as stealthy as possible. The parry system is not very well designed, and you’ll die in one to three hits, depending on the enemy. If you want you survive in Styx, being as stealthy as possible is definitely the best way to play. That said, killing an opponent by dropping onto him from above or sneaking up from behind can be quite satisfying. Of course, if you’re trying to get the bonuses for not killing anyone and for not setting off any alerts, stealth is your only option.
Health and amber (mana) are the only potions in the game. You can get some before you start a mission in your hideout or you can find them occasionally in the environment or on a target that you can pickpocket. Amber is what gives your magical abilities: invisibility, cloning, and “amber vision” perception, which is identical to eagle vision in Assassin’s Creed.
In another nod to Thief, you can save anywhere you want (with very few exceptions) although automatic save points do exist. Styx is a game in which you will want to save as often as possible, so I was very grateful when I found out that I could save my game at any time.
Finished missions can be replayed from your hideout. With regard to the bonuses (no killing, no alerts, etc.), it’s impossible to (A) kill no one, (B) set off no alerts, (C) collect all of the coins that are scattered about, (D) collect all of the relics, and (E) perform a speed run under a certain time all in one mission. If you want to collect all of the bonuses, you have to go through each level at least two times. Fortunately, once you achieve any of those goals for a mission, those goals are done for the rest of the game and your replays only need to focus on the remaining, optional goals.
The graphics are smooth and fluid, but they feel dated even though they still look gorgeous. Some textures and animation feel like they’re several years behind; however, I never had any problem with the frame rate or draw distance. On a decent solid state drive, levels took only a few seconds to load. I also do not recall the game ever crashing on me while playing.
Parkouring isn’t bad; however, you’re restricted to ledges and decorative items on the walls. After playing Assassin’s Creed for so long, I was mildly annoyed that areas like holes in the wall or gaps in stone decorations were not allowed. There were plenty of areas to climb so that you could have multiple ways of getting where you needed to go, but it was still quite limited compared to other parkouring games.
In so many ways, Styx is a wonderful mix of Thief and Assassin’s Creed with some basic RPG ingredients thrown in. That said, what could have been an amazing game was marred by numerous issues to the point that I never bothered finishing the game.
Styx Falls Short
Styx has multiple platforming issues. Sometimes I would jump from a ledge and just barely fall short, tumbling to infinity below. Other times I would fall off even though it seemed as thought I had plenty of room left. Many times the platforming had to be so precise as to be frustrating. Parkouring from one wall point to another was also problematic. You have to be perfectly aimed or else you risk not grabbing onto it and falling, most often to your death.
The most frustrating part of parkouring is how the game handles ledges. To drop to a ledge from above, you have to slowly approach the ledge until you fall off. This is pointless if you’re about to be discovered because you’re not going to go slowly in that situation whereas with Assassin’s Creed and Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor you hold a button to drop and catch the ledge. Conversely, jumping onto a ledge automatically pulls you up unless you hold the B button down (I played this with an Xbox 360 controller) which seems completely counter-intuitive. If I’m jumping onto a ledge that has an enemy, why would I want to jump up and be exposed to patrolling enemies by default? I would much rather hang there and then press a button to lift myself up at a time of my own choosing.
You can get bonus points if you don’t kill anyone, but there is no option to knock someone out. The only choices you have are to evade or kill. I understand not killing anyone, but there are plenty of unarmored people who can be knocked out and can still count towards “no kill” bonuses like in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Unfortunately, this option was completely ignored by the developers.
NPCs have a tendency to repeat the same line over and over and over. When hidden in an area, waiting for my opportunity to get away unnoticed, the NPC near me repeated the exact same line no less than five times. I’d rather have silence.
One of the upgrades for your clones is to turn them into a smoke bomb. On multiple occasions while the smoke bomb was still in effect, enemies saw me through the still-dense cloud of smoke as though there was no cloud at all, leading to some frustrating attempts at escape or movement to a hiding spot.
Path algorithms often broke so that the NPCs would walk in a jagged circle, never leaving their area, which often made getting past them impossible without using up some amber for invisibility or killing them, which nullifies any no-kill bonuses.
Speaking of which, late in the game are areas where you cannot get past guards who stand in front of your only exit without using invisibility or attacking. Normally, I’d use a clone to get the guards to attack and move away from where I want to go; however, in one particular area using a clone is useless because the guards are skilled archers. They’ll kill your clone without moving from their spot. You have to be invisible to get past them if you want to go for the “no alert” and “no killing” bonuses. If you don’t have enough amber, you’re screwed.
Styx is also loaded with triggered, artificial difficulties. In one instance, I saw a coin on a landing between two sets of stairs. With amber vision, I saw a guard at the bottom of the lower set of stairs, standing there and not doing anything. Once I stepped on the stairs below me, he then – and only then – decided to be concerned that there was no one guarding the table and moved immediately to the table with the coin. I hate that kind of artificial difficulty tactic. It’s just as infuriating in games like GTA or my much-loved The Saboteur where during a car escape the pursuing cars just so happen to show up on the map right where your current path would take you directly in their sight.
The game has enormous beetles called roabies. They’re very aggressive and effectively blind, but their hearing is very good. They will investigate the slightest of noises and will kill you with only a few attacks – but for some reason they completely ignore humans. Several times I expected to see a human approach a roabie and get attacked, hopefully with the roabie winning that battle. Once I saw a human walk through a roabie with no consequences! Having the roabies attack anyone in their range as they would with Styx could have led to some interesting strategies for dealing with enemies.
Killing an enemy results in the breakage of any potion bottle that he has on him. What’s infuriating about that is that the potion bottle will break even with a silent kill where he’s already laying on the ground! Stabbing or snapping the neck of someone who is already on the ground does not create a shock wave that can break a glass bottle!
Without spoiling anything, the ending levels involve you having to avoid elves, which is not a big deal; however, the elves can smell – yes, smell – your amber and will grow suspicious if you get too close. So you can’t get close to them for a stealth kill (you can use throwing knives if you have any) and I found no bottles of amber lying around. (Believe me, I looked!) As a result, any of your powers that you use during those levels burn up your amber with no apparent ability to refill. And, true to form, there are areas where you can’t get past a doorway without an elf detecting you unless you become invisible – which burns up more amber but also means that the elves can’t smell the amber that’s giving you the power to be invisible! (How is that possible?)
The most infuriating part of this game to me, however, is that the same levels are used multiple times. Essentially, half of the game consists of you working your way to a central area, and the rest consists of fighting your way back through those same levels. I hated some of the earlier Halo games because of this – fight your way in then fight your way back. I know that level design can be difficult; however, the beauty of the levels had me wanting more. (Seriously, the level designers did a great job!) One particular level is used three times! Even the most beautiful levels become boring after that.
Having to go through all of the levels again is disappointing at best. At worst, the repetitive nature becomes an incredibly boring grindfest particularly if you want to upgrade Styx as much as possible. For example, the simplest way to earn all level bonuses is to play each set of missions at least two times:
– once with stealth for the “no alert”, “no killing”, coins, relics, and second objective bonuses
– once for the speed run where you don’t care about anything else and you run through as quickly as possible
Now imagine that you have to run through each of the levels not twice but actually four times because fighting your way out and back are separate missions with their own bonuses. The one level you would have to play through no less than six times because it’s used with three separate missions! I love the level design, but not enough that I should have to fight my way through them at least four times!
None of these issues by themselves were enough to make me dislike the game; however, all of them combined made the second act a very frustrating experience. By the time I got to the final boss fight, I had no amber left to become invisible, and the parrying is so poorly implemented that the fighting was very difficult. And did I mention that during the final boss fight enemies can throw knives at you and kill you without you getting close to them?
When you take all of these issues into account – the repeating levels, the troublesome platforming, the artificial difficulty spikes, etc. – I was so frustrated after my fourth failure to beat the last boss fight that I exited the game and I now have no desire to finish it.
I love stealth games. I wanted to love this game. Actually, I still love the first half. The gorgeous level design, the emphasis on stealth, and the plot twist that occurs at the halfway point had me desperately wanting to see and find out more.
Then I had to go back through all of the levels (minus the tutorial level) which immediately made the game feel stale; continue to deal with the platforming and parkouring issues; play each level no less than four times to earn more upgrade bonuses; deal with the artificial, difficulty spikes and a higher density of enemies to avoid. By the final sequence, all of these issues combined had completely dispirited me. I had had enough and didn’t care any more.
I’ve played all of the Thief iterations, including the reboot, and loved them. I also love Dishonored, which is often regarded as a spiritual successor to Thief. I finished all of those games and in some cases played them to completion multiple times. But Styx? I can’t do it.
If you can deal with repeating levels, platform issues, and other such problems, Styx is definitely worth playing. The first act is amazing. The levels really are gorgeous and perfectly designed for this kind of game. The RPG elements add a nice twist to the game with enough options to allow you to upgrade to fit your personal play style. That twist at the end of Act 1 really delivers a punch that makes you want more. Unfortunately, Act 2 is so much of a drag that it makes finishing the game a chore. I wanted to finish it if only to get it done, but it crushed me to the point that I couldn’t even do that. May you have better luck (and patience) than I. Styx had so much potential that eventually ended up being wasted.
This game was purchased by the author.