Styx: Master of Shadows (PC) Review

Some may find this strange, but I’m the sort of guy who likes to watch people play games almost as much as I like to play them myself. … Then […]

Some may find this strange, but I’m the sort of guy who likes to watch people play games almost as much as I like to play them myself. … Then again, with the rise of game streaming and Let’s Plays, I guess that isn’t so unusual after all. But one of the fondest memories I have of my college experience was watching my friend play through the Thief games. When I saw Styx: Master of Shadows, a dark medieval stealth game with a steampunky aesthetic, I was understandably intrigued.

Visuals

Styx runs on some iteration of the Unreal Engine (which one precisely I was not able to easily ascertain) so if you’ve played any games in the last five years or so, you have a pretty good idea what sort of a look and feel you’ll be getting. With so many games running on the Unreal Engine, the question doesn’t so much become how a game looks as how well it puts the engine to use. Styx looks damn good.

Airships=Steampunky aesthetic.

Airships=Steampunky aesthetic.

The level design is superb. Not just in terms of usability, which we’ll get to in the Gameplay section, but in terms of visual detail. The levels are positively crowded with nooks and crannies to explore and enjoy. Early in the game you’re treated to such sprawling eye candy as a massive, crowded sky city, departing airships, and the obligatory dank gothic sewers. If there is even one usage of a skybox in this game, I didn’t notice it. Everything has the look of being reachable if you just try hard enough.

Character models and lip sync aren’t exactly groundbreaking, but I’ve often found player models to be the weakness of the Unreal Engine, so no surprise there. That said, I was really pleased with the creativity in character design. Styx himself is precisely what you’d picture a goblin assassin to be, and the character actually goes through some significant visual changes across the events of the game. There are humans, orcs, and elves in the setting, and each looks enough like their classic namesake to be recognizable while still having a suitably original feel to them. Work has even been done to make enemies recognizable at a distance, vital when you’re trying to avoid wasting precious throwing knives on enemies immune to them.

Gameplay

With a few exceptions, the gameplay of Styx is extremely good. I particularly admire the level design. In a game that gives extreme flexibility regarding how you achieve your goals, the levels do a fine job of facilitating each. For stealth there are plenty of dark corners, low passages, and high ledges. For exploration there are endless crevices to hide collectibles and consumables. And for combat you’ll find plenty of ambush points and traps to spring.

You can also peek through keyholes. Look! Life Juice!

You can also peek through keyholes. Look! Life Juice!

Styx is an assassination game. In that way it is quite unlike the Thief Series, which tends to frown upon killing. (I suppose one might unavoidably compare it to Assassin’s Creed, but really there isn’t much common ground in my opinion.) You play as a pint-sized creature, which right from the start has its plusses and minuses. On the plus side, you can hide under tables and crawl easily through vents. (The architects of the game loved vents.) On the minus side, you’re not really a match for the people you’re up against. Seriously. The combat in the game is an absolute last resort. You can’t take on crowds, so much so that the only non-assassination combat in the game is called “dueling”. You defeat people in duels by parrying their attacks enough times to create an opening for a kill. This more or less guarantees that they’ll get at least one hit off on you. Ideally, you’ll be doing your killing through alternate means, and there is no shortage of those.

The main method of kill is to sneak up behind someone. Holding the attack button for about five long seconds will do a muffled kill, which makes almost no noise. If you’re in a hurry, or there’s no one nearby to alert, you can just let go of the button and your victim will scream before dying. As you earn skill points (for primary and secondary objectives) you’ll unlock additional kill methods ranging from the indispensable (killing from around corners and from above) to the almost useless (I don’t know if I was able to perform a single hanging kill).

Not as cool as it sounds.

Not as cool as it sounds.

Since darkness makes you less detectable, you’ll be spending a lot of time extinguishing light sources… which makes things a lot more difficult to see. To combat this, and also highlight interactive elements, the game lets you use “amber vision”, named for the substance that fuels it. Amber also allows you to create my personal favorite game mechanic, the clone. Styx can vomit up scrawny duplicates of himself, then control them. These little buggers can flip switches, poison food and water (so can you), and unfasten hanging hazards to crush enemies. Later they can get seriously tricked out, gaining the ability to detonate as a smoke bomb, booby trap chests and even go invisible. Of course your clones aren’t the only ones who can go invisible, as that’s the final amber-powered ability you have. Amber itself, aside from being crucial to the plot, comes in vials of which you can carry only two initially, so invisibility (which doesn’t restore your amber) needs to be used sparingly unless you’re particularly good at finding fresh vials of the stuff hanging from guards or sitting on shelves.

Using these abilities you can either slash-and-slice your way through the level, leaving no one alive (my favorite method), spare the lives of the whole level (useful for the “mercy” insignia for each mission) or some combination of the two. You can even beat a level without raising any alarms at all. In almost all situations there are paths that will let you avoid confrontation, or methods to kill even those enemies immune to your weapons. And naturally certain levels will take away certain skills, making stealth the only option if you, say, don’t have your dagger.

I'm not so so good with the maps...

I’m not so so good with the maps…

Overall I really enjoyed the gameplay, but there were a few things that bugged me to no end. The platforming of the game is slippery. Styx can drop off an edge and catch it on the way down. This is a vital skill for both navigation and evasion, but to do it you need to slowly walk off the edge. I could NOT get this to happen reliably, and thus spent a lot of time loading after falling off a ledge I’d meant to dangle from. There is an “anchor point” mechanic that lets you climb walls by jumping from point to point. This works great. What doesn’t work great is jumping from points to ledges. I can’t count the number of times Styx decided only to jump half as far as usual, or to grind himself across a wall instead of jumping toward a ledge. Some enemies were a bit overpowered, too. Holy crap, those roabies… I really feel that between the roabies and the orcs, having human guards possibly become their targets instead of just me would have made more sense dramatically and gamemplay-wise. Imagine getting a group of guards to wander into a crowd of mutant death beetles… If only. The in game map isn’t terribly helpful, in that it’s just that, a map. Not a map system. It’s clever in that it requires you to keep your bearings and identify landmarks, but it’s irritating in that I wasn’t good at doing the bearings part. Fortunately the objective pointers do the job well enough.

Also, there’s at least one escort mission. Enough with the escort missions, developers. Seriously.

Story

I loved the story of this game. The setting is very deep and imaginative right from the start, layering on political intrigue and rock solid world building in equal measure. At the center of it all is amber, a substance that is a source of magic power for many, and an addictive drug for others. This substance, it is revealed early on, allows certain people to hear the thoughts of anyone who has ever tasted the stuff. (Imagine the spying potential of that!) Our hero—well, our protagonist, he’s not exactly heroic—begins the story by getting captured, and proceeds to lay out the details of his plan to his incredulous interrogators. Gameplay shows us carrying out those plans step by step. Styx, complaining of headaches and having a hard time remembering things, talks to himself as the story progresses, plotting out what he needs to do along the way. As the story progresses it gets much deeper, much more intriguing, and much more complex.

Styx himself is coarse, but not in the “booger-flicking bad boy” sort of way. Yes he’s foul mouthed and yes he talks about farts and balls, but it seems less like an “in your face gross out” sort of character just to get a rise out of the audience and more a natural sort of behavior. He’s got some great lines, too. I’m not going to dig too much deeper into the details of the story though, because this game has the tremendous capacity to be spoiled.

Summing Up

I really, really enjoyed Styx. The pace is excellent, with new abilities and enemy types appearing with each new level right up to the end. It is attractive, well designed, and engaging. If not for a few control flaws and a few balance issues, this game would have been looking at a perfect score from me.

Verdict

9.0 / 10: Styx is a stealth assassination game filled to the brim with almost perfectly executed gameplay mechanics and a truly engaging storyline and setting.

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About Decoychunk

Editor, Writer, and general Knower-Of-Words, if there is text to be read on BrainLazy, Joseph Lallo probably has his fingerprints on it. As the final third of the ownership and foundation of BrainLazy, Joseph “Jo” Lallo made a name for himself when he lost the “e” from his nickname in an arm wrestling match with a witch doctor. Residing in the arid lowlands of the American Southwest, Joseph Lallo is a small, herbivorous, rabbit-like creature with the horns of an antelope. He sleeps belly up, and his milk can be used for medicinal purposes. Joseph Lallo is also author of several books, including The Book of Deacon Series, book 1 of which is available for free here.