Styx sneaks onto consoles and the PC in a game that’s a covert, stealthy affair, but also one that’s tougher than tough- and not in a good way.
Styx: Master of the Shadows just does not deliver a cohesive game experience. On one hand, the game excels with a great story and awesome art style, on the other hand, the poor gameplay mechanics ultimately bog down the whole adventure. Cyanide Studio did a wonderful job of building a great mythos surrounding Styx and the Tower of Akensash, however the level of gameplay frustration easily outweighs the joy of playing the game.
The narrative is a great one, despite other issues, this is the story of a goblin thief who is looking to pull off the ultimate heist. It is an infiltration game developed by the aforementioned Cyanide Studio and published by Focus Home Interactive. Gamers play the part of Styx, a foul-mouthed goblin with a bad case of amnesia. The game begins with Styx waking up inside a prison cell having no recollection of how he came to be in a jail.
Styx stages an escape, but fails and his human captives decide to interrogate the creature. Some memories come flooding back to Styx though and the objective of the game is revealed. The long and the short of it is that Styx must find a way through the Tower of Akenash to steal the Heart of the Tree contained within.
The Heart of the Tree is the main source of a powerful drug with strong addictive properties. It seems as though everyone in the game is addicted. The drug is called Amber and the effects of Amber are far stretching, and help Styx as he navigates his way through the Tower of Akenash to the Heart of the Tree. Styx is obsessed with stealing the Heart of the Tree to prove to his human captors as well as his creators (a couple of elves) that he is the most cunning thief ever. Oh, and Styx seems to be addicted to the sweet Amber juice as well.
There are a lot of good things going on with Styx. The story is a nice change of pace and, instead of always playing as a human, players will have to play as the antagonist/protagonist goblin thief. And the art style of Styx is where the game really shines. The game’s art style reminiscent of the art style from Dishonored by Bethesda, and the character models are tall and their features are pointy. There’s a variety of characters models patrolling the Tower of Akenash making sure there is no funny business too.
Styx himself also has a really distinct character model. He’s a well-crafted little creature and has a neat little feature, which is a tattoo on his arm that lights up anytime he is hidden by the shadows. This helps as most of the game is required to be played in the shadows. Unfortunately, that is all there is to look forward to when playing Styx, as unfortunately, clumsy controls and awkward combat makes the rest of the game tedious and frustrating.
Gamers can expect to die a lot, resulting in frustration. Losing progress in the game and having to restart at check points can be extremely tedious as well and gamers can expect to traverse the Tower very slowly while using the environment to hide. If Styx is detected there are only two options, fleeing or close combat fighting. Don’t dare think about engaging in combat though, because it often times result in death.
Styx must try to avoid all forms of combat and confrontations. This is because Styx has no offensive powers and can only kill while he is in cover and during combat he can only parry. This restrictive gameplay mechanic often leads down the dark road of death. The inability of the combat system shoehorns players into only one option, running away. The frustration level rises beyond fun as anytime Styx is detected too, since the best course for action is to almost always turn tail and run. This results in kind of punishment for exploration. Why go exploring when it will often times result in death?
The Tower of Akenash has plenty to see and do too, so exploring is something thats going to be somewhat of a tease. There are collectible coins, which help Styx level up, as well as some prize treasures. Except, the frustration level versus the payoff when it comes to exploration is all out of whack. There are no shortage of enemies in the tower and, on top of that, it seems as though the detection system does not always work. There are times when an enemy won’t detect Styx on the first playthrough only to have the same enemy detect Styx on a second, third or fourth playthrough. What starts off as a simple playthrough becomes a timed run as the player must memorize the correct path to get to the end of the level. If that wasn’t bad enough, the controls for Styx could also use some work.
It’s hard to put my finger on it, but the controls for Styx feel a little… off. Simple maneuvers are not available for use, and the controls are not that responsive all around. And in order to have a good stealth game the control really needs to be responsive and tight, but here the controls during gameplay feel loose and erratic. Walking from point A to point B and it seems as though Styx sways side to side with a strange gait and walking from a couched position is not any easier. Standing near ledges is actually a game within itself.
Styx is supposed to be able to slowly walk off a ledge and automatically grasp on, but the reality is catching on to a ledge is hit or miss. But jumping from ledge to ledge and holding down the jump button will always result in Styx holding on to the ledge. It is these kind of discrepancies between two easy movements that keeps the player always guessing as to how Styx is going to react to the gamer and not how the game will react to the movements of Styx. These clumsy gameplay mechanics detract from the overall story. And that’s not all as the last part lacking in Styx is the upgrade system.
The little goblin can only apply his upgrades while he is at his hideout. This serves as the hub and Styx can upgrade his skills and also restock his supplies while he’s in it. On top of that, whenever Styx has completed a series of levels, he has to complete just one more to make it back to his hideout. There is so much to see and do in the Tower, but the gameplay mechanics really emphasize just getting through each part as quickly and quietly as possible. Now let’s talk about the upgrade system.
Styx can earn upgrade points by collecting coins, completing the main quest and completing side missions. There are two types of upgrades, active and passive. The active upgrades feel kind of flat. Styx has Amber Vision, which is like detective vision in the Batman Arkham series of games. Definitely unlike Batman though, he also can make clones of himself and turn invisible. Players can also upgrade Styx’ passive skills such as agility, combat and the number of supplies he can carry. There are a lot of different skills and, again, Styx needs them all to struggle his way through the Tower. While the active skills are a nice gimmick, they don’t seem to help push the game forward. The passive skills seemed to do a better job at getting Styx through the Tower as they give buffs that give the character an easier time of things… to a degree.
Styx: Master of the Shadows is game for a stormy day. It requires a lot of patience and some trial and error and players are required to literally hide in the shadows at all times.
This unfortunately detracts from good level design. Instead of inspiring exploration, the player will face a question; attempt to lurk through the tower or run as fast as he or she can through the level. A wonky upgrade system that doesn’t really help Styx, doesn’t really instill a lot of confidence either. The reward for making it through each level started to become a job and the experience of joy faded as I had to replay the same levels over and over because I died so often. Though I do hold some type of hope for Styx and Cyanide Studios in the long run, if there should be another installment. While the mechanics of the game are crippling, the story and design are both so good that I would still very much be interested if there was a sequel made. So maybe that says something.