Styx: Shards of Darkness is the second, or third depending on how you look at it, game in the series created by the French studio Cyanide which was formed from a group of ex Ubisoft employees. Firstly, let me put it straight out there; I’ve not played the previous game in the series Styx: Master of Shadows, nor have I played Of Orcs and Men. Hence, I’m very much fresh to this universe and all the lore that has been built up by the previous games in the series. But I have played Thief: The Dark Project tirelessly, the game that I still class as the benchmark in the stealth genre.
You play the role of Styx, a goblin with the distinguishing feature of being able to talk. Styx himself is very marmite, as such his tongue in cheek personality is either going to be something you like or hate. I’m more aligned with the later, but I did crack the occasional smile. Love him or hate him, it isn’t a really important part of the game. Stalking around in the shadows is very much what this game is about. Styx has limited combat ability, and as such direct combat is very much a last, usually fatal, resort. Styx only carries a knife, and as such he can only directly fight lightly armoured targets. More heavily armoured targets will require more thought, as your knife just isn’t going to be able to pierce their armour. As such, you’ll need to draw upon Styx’s other abilities to progress, for which there are a few to master.
Firstly, Styx has all the usual skills that you would expect from a would be assassin. He’s an adept sneaker, and can easily creep around the shadows unnoticed. In addition he’s an effective climber, making use of every beam and overhang to stay out of sight. He also has a good selection of items, such as poison darts, acid vials used to dissolve bags of sand which can be used to remotely extinguish torches. More importantly though, are his unique abilities granted to him through his addiction to a substance called Amber. Amber itself is a limited resource, that’s consumed whenever Styx makes use of his Amber abilities. Amber is also the foundation of the games story, which revolves around understanding an alliance between the Dark Elves and Dwarves.
Styx himself is a love him or hate him character
Amber vision, much like Arkham Asylum’s ‘Detective Mode’, allows you to scan the environment highlighting pickups, objects that can be interacted with such as chandeliers and most importantly guards. Alongside just highlighting guards however, it also shows where they are looking via a somewhat Scott Summers looking energy beam. The specific detail is useful, as where normally you might assume a guard would spot you if you tried to sneak past him Amber Vision allows you to see that in fact he is reading a parchment on the table in front of him and it should be possible to sneak in front of him if you are careful enough.
In addition to the above, Styx can also for a limited time turn himself invisible, which is particularly useful for quickly passing through a well guarded corridor or pickpocketing a guard. Invisibility comes with the penalty of consuming your Amber supply very quickly, hence you’ll need to use it sparingly. It’s expense will draw you more towards Styx’s interestingly unique ability to create a clone. Creating a clone is as simple as a couple of button presses on the controller, and clones are almost as capable as Styx himself stopping just short of being able to deliver the death blow. When you create a clone, you can switch between controlling Styx or the clone, as such you can use them to create a quick distraction, scout ahead or as a lure to guide unsuspecting guards into well prepared traps. Clones open up a huge additional array of strategy to the player, and their disposable penalty free nature makes for some fun.
Styx then is certainly a well equipped character, and you’ll also be able to develop his abilities further through the games skill tree which is where the player can spend XP earned during missions. Upgrades focus on specific areas, allowing you to better observe the environment as well as expand your options for using clones. XP is rewarded not for kills, but rather for completing objectives and challenges. Objectives come in 2 forms. Main Objectives are standard fair with each level having a couple that play out to advance the main story. Additional objectives are more like side quests, with the difference that the player will need to seek them out himself rather than rely on markers to get things started. Finally are the challenges, which tasks the player to complete additional goals to additional XP, for example complete the level in under a certain time or without any killing any enemies. Challenges encourage you to explore different play styles and can be tackled one at a time rather than all at once, which helps to give the game some decent replay value.
The environments are designed to maximise Styx’s abilities, encouraging variety at every opportunity
The levels themselves are all rather ‘Escher’, but once you start to explore them you understand how each is a perfect sandbox for Styx’s abilities. Each encourages you to explore the full range of Styx’s abilities to tackle each room, building or objective. At no point do you ever feel like your options are limited, with many strategical options at your disposal at all times. For example faced with a well guarded bridge to cross, you could use a clone to lure the guards away, or stealthy hang from the side and sneak past. There are normally other environment options to take advantage of, such as a drinking fountain to poison. The consistency of varying options is encouragingly playful, where death sees you simply employ refine or take a fresh approach to the problem. For the most part each environment feels unique, a progression on the challenge on those that came before although later on in the game you do revisit some earlier locations. Each is large, with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore off the beaten track. All in all, they are perfect sandboxes to showcase Styx’s abilities, and as such highly fun to play around in.
The game does has some niggles. It certainly doesn’t feel that it is as polished as it could have been, with the odd performance dip here and there. I also found the boss battles in the game tediously unnecessary, feeling more like a distraction from the fun that could have been excluded altogether. A final bugbear would be movement across environments, particularly climbing, it lacks the fluid feeling that can be found in other games with similar mechanics. But they are simply minor annoyances, and looking past these limited faults its an accomplished game that certainly hits all the right buttons for the stealth genre. Styx’s toolset along with the environments feel like a perfect marriage, the proverbial ‘sweet spot’. Its far from perfect, but its fun and although it’s world is not as captivating as that of the original Thief its certainly close to the mark on the gameplay.
Styx: Shards of Darkness was provided to us by Xbox via a download code for Xbox One.