Ah, fantasy, the juice that just keeps dripping from the taps. Especially the medieval classical fantasy. The ones of wizards, dwarves, and elves. So sweet is the nectar that people are making their own cocktails. For instance, I like the subversive dark brew. One you might find in Joe Abercombie’s book trilogy The First Law. So I was curious when I heard of Styx: Shards of Darkness, a goblin-starred game about robbin’ the locals and stabbing those with a pulse. However, such dark work by a dark creature has to be done with more care than this, as while it works it does feel more practical than effective.
Styx: Shards of Darkness is a fantasy stealth title by Cyanide Studio and is the third title in the “Of Orcs and Men” series following on from Of Orcs and Men prequel Styx: Master of Shadows. You play as a goblin who is, unsurprisingly, named Styx. One with a pretty nasty history of pocketing everything not nailed down and assassination work. That is until he receives a contract to steal a scepter that goes awry, and so goes on a revenge mission against who he feels has wronged him.
Styx is a special goblin, though. Beyond having a keen mind, magical amber-based powers (we’ll talk on that later), Styx is the only talking goblin around. An attribute you may quickly realize the misfortune of as he has a sense of humor akin to an internet video-game parody video. I’d comment on him breaking the 4th wall, but considering he leaps into Toy Story and Tarzan references within the first 5 minutes I don’t think such a wall ever existed in this land. There are also Assassin’s Creed, Thief and Dishonored references, as well as many other references. So those who have a particular hatred of smug referential 4th-wall breaking humor may want to skip this as they exist by the truckload. This includes on the game over screen, seemingly to rub failure in your face like an abusive owner rubbing a dog’s nose in its own accidental mess on the carpet.
Putting characterisation aside which beyond Styx is lacking amongst the cast, the narrative of Styx: Shards of Darkness generally works with a clear progression within its plot. A plot set in a world of dwarves, dark elves and magic that still feels its own creation, especially via its lore on goblins. It even slides in a sense of humor that feels less insufferable and more smirk-inducing if a bit silly. The only slight grumble, and it is relatively minor, is that it ends on an anti-climatic shrug. Even the last boss feels thrown in rather than vital to the plot sadly. However, it is only a small blip on what is a working plot that I confess explores an interestingly unusual setting.
That said, the meat of Styx: Shards of Darkness is its stealth. It is lurking in a genre rife with titles that either provide so little information that you’re bound to alert people with every trip or with so much where you’d have to be itchin’ for a chase to get spotted. Styx, at least on its hard difficulty which includes upping the spotting rate, walks this fine line with a perception mechanic akin to Hitman: Absolution‘s instinct mechanic. Upon activating Amber Sight enemies (including the way they’re facing), significant objects (including loot and objects you can trip on that make noise) and climbable rock juts will glow different colors. While this useful and balanced system is free to use, it does turn off when you move which you’ll always want to be moving.
How you move or tackle your objective is up to you, though. If you’ll creep like a sheathed blade in the dark, or if you’ll tear out jugulars until blood floods the floors is of your own desecration. This is especially as most levels operate more as an open map than a linear tunnel to your objective. There is even a pleasant verticality to it. You can crawl the walls, hoist yourself up ropes or dangle along ledges to stay above the guards or stick to the shadows on the floor. This open navigation does end up offering a refreshing freedom.
The only dampener via nit-picking (which unfortunately is par for the job) is the amount environments that are reused. Each mission is usually made up of two or three environments and there is a good chance at least one of them will be something you’ve seen before but tweaked with new objectives and new guard postings. While narratively it makes sense and there is some diversity in what is on show, those itching to see constant variation may end up disheartened.
Although likely won’t rush to your objective, as there is a whole host of side objectives. Ones that don’t always just throw more XP your way for completion and sometimes push you to use that noggin on your shoulders to solve puzzles (albeit simple ones) than your twitchy fingers and thumbs. Upon a vague rumor of a knife hidden away, I sought it out and solved a rather basic memorization conundrum. In return I got a new dagger to help with stealth kills from that point on. So not only does it pay to not just crunch through the main objectives as quickly as possible, but the rewards include equipment, pure quartz as well as XP.
That said, Styx: Shards of Darkness stumbles upon the ever common tripping point in stealth titles with an XP system, of “you could, but why would you?”. You have five separate skill trees that by the end of the game you can fill (or at least most of it), but only two will have any significant bearing on how you perform: Stealth and Perception. Stealth helps to not be spotted (which includes buffing your cloaking special ability) and perception aids with spotting guards and useful objects.
Cloning can be useful but tends to be over-complicating a simple avoidance task. Alchemy has some neat skills but besides making lock picks and jars of amber (to fuel your special abilities), and maybe the alchemist laboratory to craft on the move, it is a distant third to Perception and Stealth trees. The Killing tree, though…
…I guess I should talk more about where the meat of your XP will come from in Styx: Shards of Darkness. Each mission you’ll not only have the main objective and side missions to consider, but also four medals. These medals are: Speed of completion, alerts, killing and how many collectibles you found. While speed and collectibles do offer wiggle room of approach, the nature of the alert and killing medals dropping to a silver if you even get spotted once or kill one person heavily discourages any approach besides passive avoidance. So any points into the Killing tree seems to be completely counter-productive to reaping further XP in missions further on.
This problem of being given tools you’ll likely not use so you can chase XP rears its head to a lesser extent in the equipment. Each one from the default will offer a pro and a con that leans towards your approach. While it is best to bring a knife for assassination missions (as there is one or two, which doesn’t affect the medal), you’re just punishing yourself if you kill guards so you wouldn’t need anything too special. Cloaks are fine from what I can tell as they can still play into avoidance which is the nature of the game around these parts.
It is nice being given the option of the skill tree and equipment, aiding freedom of approach, but I’m just left guttered at how much Styx: Shards of Darkness heavily discourages using some unlockable skills/equipment via the medal system.
The imbalance also extends into powers. You COULD use precious amber that fuels your special ability to clone, but it often ends up a lot more effective to save every drop for cloaking. By the time you complete the Stealth skill tree it’ll grant you a brief time where you can not be seen while activated, and every use of its potent force will bleed your amber reserves dry fast. So it seems there is no use wasting the drops on anything but cloaking unless you’re particularly fond of playing with clones. Although I confess this could just be revealing my preferences of play style.
There is just one more part in Styx: Shards of Darkness bothering me: Dwarves. No no no, it isn’t a racist hatred against the drunk beards with inexplicably Scottish accents. Rather it is fury against their noses. Y’see dwarves have the ability to sniff out goblins nearby. However, I can’t suss out if it is working as intended on the Goblin (aka hard) difficulty.
Whether or not a dwarf smells your hide seems sporadic at best. If they do get a whiff, especially on the higher difficulty which tends towards spotting you particularly quick, I found it incredibly hard for them to stop being alerted. A few cases had me hiding nearby in a place they could not ever see (e.g. above them on a rooftop or in a vent shaft) and they kept being triggered by my smell over and over. Other times had me waiting hoping they’d move on as I was basically on top of the objective but them being alerted repetitively had me trying to creep off with the hopes of not being spotted either leaving or returning. Not even my amber sight would clue me in if I was going to be sniffed out.
Maybe it’ll be patched quickly, but as is dwarves are less of a challenge and more a random frustration that makes stealth scream-inducing by the exasperation of the medal system that hates you being spotted.
The final score of Styx: Shards of Darkness is a 6.5/10.While it does boast fantastic stealth mechanics that inform without holding your hand and an open field to sneak through, it is let down by some not-so-fantastic quirks like a medal system that counteracts against your skill tree, frustrating dwarves, and an anti-climatic tale. It also carries with it a smug 4th wall breaking sense of humor that particularly grinds on me and rises to the surface often, but if this type of referential humor isn’t like bamboo under your fingernails for you then it is more along the lines of a 7/10.
In the end, though, the lingering thoughts Styx: Shards of Darkness leaves me with aren’t pleasant ones. Not due to it being a bad game (a 7 means “good” and 6 is “ok” in my book), but because of how two fumbles stopped Styx: Shards of Darkness becoming something more significant and noteworthy. If the writing didn’t confuse a “wise-ass character” with pleased-with-itself self-awareness and the game really did encourage me to play as I wish, then perhaps there was something special creeping around here. Especially in a setting as unusual as this and with the strange skills on hand, offering wonderful, devious and wonderfully devious ways to assassinate and discard guards you don’t like. Which for me now includes all dwarven guards.
A Playstation 4 Review Key for Styx: Shards of Darkness was provided by Focus Home Interactive for the Purpose of this Review
Styx: Shards of Darkness
- Open Areas Offer Freedom of Approach
- Easy to Perform yet Hard to Master Stealth Mechanics
- Side Missions with variety of rewards
- Unusual distinct setting
- Horrid 4th-wall breaking sense of humour.
- Dwarves Can be Too Sensitive and Tempermental
- Imbalanced Skill Tree
- Counterproductive Medal System