With a digital release today, Styx: Master of Shadows brings back the stealth genre into the spotlight for a cheaper price than the usual deal with AAA titles. Is Cyanide's new game worth your time? Read our full review to find out. Note: Videos have all been captured on PC.
The stealth genre is a tricky beast; the line between brilliance and frustration is often very narrow. Few games manage to find this balance but when they do the results are often unforgettable. The likes of Thief: The Dark Project, Deus Ex, Escape from Butcher Bay and Dishonored all offer atmospheric journeys into captivating, shadow filled worlds. Styx: Master of Shadows is already clearly the master of the stealthy release date but it’s also a game that clearly draws quite a bit of inspiration from these classics. Cyanide Studio doesn’t have the greatest track record of course, but in this case, their heart seems to be in the right place.
You play as an old, sneaky Goblin named Styx who takes it upon himself to navigate a massive fortress city, the Tower of Akenash, on a journey to the World Tree situated at its center. The Amber contained within promises an infinite source of power making it highly attractive if not for the melange of humans and elves guarding it. The story is told with Styx already in captivity being questioned by the humans as he retells his escapades leading up to that point. The game is broken up into individual missions book-ended with cutscenes and a visit to Styx’s personal hideout. Styx isn’t the most captivating of characters and its story isn’t the main draw here but it’s serviceable enough to keep the game moving.
Come Stealth Away with Me
Styx is all about one thing and only one thing: stealth. The qualities of a great stealth game can be debated but, looking at the best games in the genre give us a good idea of what it takes. In essence, the stealth “gameplay loop” can be divided up into three pillars: infiltration, detection, and escape. Infiltration is the default state – the portion of the game in which enemies are unaware of your position as you move throughout the stage. You have an objective, a set of tools, and levels full of active guards. High level play should, theoretically, never leave this state.
Infiltration works well in Styx and is, in fact, the core focus of the game. The levels are large and offer a large number of paths for the player to explore while offering a fair bit of interactivity. You can, for instance, douse torches, hide in barrels, poison the water supply, and bring a stack of crates down on your enemy’s heads among other things. There are typically multiple paths available to explore with each area offering its own unique set of challenges. Most areas offer a large enough view of the surroundings to allow for proper on the fly planning but can sometimes feel bogged down by huge numbers of enemies and a lack of shadowy corners.
Infiltration is bolstered by the tool set available to the player which includes traditional items such as throwing daggers and your trusty knife. Useful as these may be it’s the introduction of a cloning system that really allows for some unique encounters. At nearly any point you can create a clone of yourself which can be used to distract guards, open doors, and solve puzzles. Once cloned you can swap control back and forth between Styx and his clone allowing you to really play with the AI in some creative ways. Trotting the old clone to grab one guard while you sneak up to kill another only to return and finish off the first is highly satisfying. You can even earn a skill that allows you to place your clone in a nearby chest or closet ready to attack anyone that walks by. Cloning does require a bit of Amber, the games source of magic, to cast but, by destroying your clone, you can actually reclaim the Amber used to cast the spell. Of course, if your clone is killed by the enemy you won’t reclaim anything.
Out of Control
Infiltration isn’t always a smooth experience, unfortunately. A great stealth experience demands precision from the player and its controls. In the case of Styx the controls feel a bit imprecise at times to the point where failure can leave you feeling cheated upon failure. Traversal is the most troublesome aspect with certain actions failing to work as expected in tense situations. The game uses predefined hand holds throughout, not unlike many other games these days, and failing to target the sweet spot can result in a plunge to your death. With a bit of practice it’s possible to overcome these issues but it remained frustrating throughout the experience.
It’s these issues that will likely walk you right into the next important aspect of a stealth game; detection. While the objective in a stealth game is to remain undetected some of the most exciting moments often stem from the scenarios that can play out once spotted. It’s only here that a games AI is truly put to the test and it’s where it becomes most fun to mess with your opponents. Unfortunately, Styx handles these in perhaps the most frustrating fashion possible. You see, when caught, enemies will rush to your location and engage you in a “parrying” mini-game which requires you to press the attack button in time with the enemies attack until it triggers a “kill” icon. Nearby enemies are all very aware of this as well and will proceed to queue up behind the currently engaged foe awaiting their turn to challenge you in the timed button press mini-game.
Take a Number and Form a Line
What makes this incredibly frustrating is that it seems like you should be able to easily make an escape triggering a game of hunter hunted. Instead, if an enemy just happens to stand within certain proximity, this mini-game is triggered locking you into the encounter. If you have enough Amber available it is possible to turn invisible and escape from this sequence but it doesn’t really solve the problem. Every stealth game has a consequence for being caught but this is not the way to handle it. Having control yanked away while being locked into what amounts to a QTE can be incredibly frustrating and detracts from the experience. The choice to engage should be left up to the player to decide once detected.
The third pillar, the escape sequence, is then pretty much neutered by this design. If you are far enough away from enemies when caught or engage invisibility it is indeed possible to escape but the thrill of picking off foes is dampened by the fear of engaging the parrying mini-game leading to the player cowering in a dark corner until enemies return to their patrols. What should be one of the most thrilling moments in a stealth game is all but wasted here.
Some of this could have been alleviated if the game were not so stingy with supplies and abilities. Abilities that seem natural for a master assassin are locked behind an arbitrary skill tree. Corner kills, ledge kills, and other such basic moves are buried deep within forcing you to use points to simply restore what should be standard actions. Useful items, such as throwing knives, are also incredibly scarce. This type of thing has become disappointingly commonplace these days and it does hurt the earlier sections of the game.
Perhaps the games finest quality lies within its level design. Those disappointed by the barrage of loading screens plaguing the recent Thief game will be pleased by the much larger maps on offer here. Each area is loaded with areas to explore – many of which are completely optional. In fact, it’s almost a shame there isn’t more objectives to achieve in these areas. In many ways it’s highly reminiscent of Dishonored with its focus on verticality and spacious areas. It’s relatively nice looking as well with Unreal Engine 3 working alongside solid environmental art direction to create an attractive world. Characters are a bit on the ugly side but, at least in the case of Styx himself, that makes sense. The audio side of things isn’t quite so impressive with dull music, limited ambient effects, and merely decent voice acting. Audio is one of the things that made the Thief games so magical and it’s a real shame that more effort wasn’t put into creating a haunting soundscape here.
Looking back over their long list of past works it might not be a stretch to say that Styx: Master of Shadows is the finest game Cyanide Studio has made yet. Those who love the focused design of classic Thief games or the more modern Dishonored should find something here that they’ll enjoy but one must keep in mind some of its frustrations. The sloppy controls mixed with an ill-conceived detection system can produce some frustrating, trial and error filled moments. Still, when everything eventually clicks, the end result can prove quiet enjoyable. If you’re looking for a stealth game that is entirely devoted to stealth and have patience to deal with a bit of “jankiness” give it a try.