Prior to last week I had not been aware of Styx: Master of Shadows, as the game somehow managed to creep under my radar til a week before its release. Now, after 17 hours of filling the lack of shoes of Styx, I find myself wondering how I had ever gamed without him.
Is that you rakash? It’s me, Styx
Styx tells the story of a 200-year-old goblin whose goal in life is to visit the “World Tree” and to steal the “Heart of the Tree”. Well, that’s what the description wants you to believe at least, but in actuality Styx is about coming to terms with one’s own identity, with finding out what truly is the make-up of who an individual is. I know, surprisingly deep for what on the surface appears to be a stealth game about a foul-mouthed goblin, but here we are at the end of the week and here I am questioning my own psyche. So there’s that.
Reviewing this title in regards to the story is one of the more difficult things I’ve dealt with, as how do I convey the beauty of the story without spoiling the shift in dynamic that takes place during it? Sure, most people will see the game’s twist coming a mile away (or at least a few dozen feet) but what you may not see if the impact it has. The titular character Styx spends much of the game struggling with his identity, especially in regards to who is Styx. There’s looks at the fragile mindset of someone inundated with the thoughts of others, which questions the ideas of who truly controls the individual.
Is it the person themselves, or is it the unseen forces around them? What is identity?
Styx: Master of Shadows doesn’t answer these questions, as at its core it’s just a well-executed hardcore-styled stealth game, but the question is still posed.
Ultimately the story makes for an extraordinarily enjoyable experience, one that slowly builds across the games seven missions/acts.
Making Your Way in the World
When playing Styx I found myself thinking back on the much maligned, at least by me, Dishonored. The least of the reasons that game came to mind being thatStyx’s enemy NPCs bear a striking similarity to that title’s main character Corvo. What stood out most for me was the open-ended nature of each level within a mission. Now, most people would probably liken this to the Thief series, of whichStyx shares many similarities, but it was in Dishonored that I found a kindred spirit, one that actually redeemed the latter in part for me.
Each mission (or act) is divided up into 3-4 levels, all of which present a more-or-less simple main goal to accomplish; usually the goal being a variation on getting to the exit of that area. In addition to the main goals, the player is presented with an assortment of side goals. These run the gamut from assassinating a special target, to stealing a visually inconspicuous item in the world, to creating a massive distraction to aid in an escape. There’s also 10 coins hidden in each level, plus a relic that can be found in each mission of the game. None of these goals are necessary to complete, and in fact they tend to take you extremely out-of-the-way of your main quest in each level, but what they do create is a better understanding on the world you’re inhabiting. In addition, they net you more skill points that you can assign back at your hideout between missions, which is well worth the additional time they take to complete.
Speaking of skills, Styx is quite the versatile little goblin, one who at his base level of skills can complete most any mission with proper planning. With the skill system being used to its maximum ability, that’s where the true skill lies. Between each mission the player can take any skill points earned and use them to purchase up to 4 new abilities per area of expertise. There’s also a final area of expertise that requires mastery of two of the previous sections, which is something I wish I realized prior to the final act of the game. The beauty of this system is that at any time you can forget one skill and learn another one, which came quite in handy when I realized my summoned minion just wasn’t fond of setting a proper trap. The best aspect of this system as well is that if you play a mission and realize that having a stronger smoke bomb would’ve allowed you to do something more quickly, you can learn said skill and then replay that mission.
Replaying missions is likely the only way you’ll be able to master each part of the game, as every mission has certain “Insignia” goals which are hidden until completion. These goals consist of finishing a mission without being detected, not killing any humans or elves (good luck on the latter), not using any items, and finishing each mission in a certain time limit. To put that last requirement in perspective, if you finish each mission in the required time limit on one try you will have a played time in-game of under 5 hours. I on the other hand finished with nearly 18 hours of playtime to my name.
Why is that you may be asking? Well the answer is simple: I died…a lot. Like, holy shit did I die a lot.
Death and Being a Goblin
Many times my death was due to my own lack of patience or initial understanding of how to get through a room. Other times it was due to my insistence to keep trying the same route through a level time and again, only to figure out 30 minutes later that there was an easy to access ledge right above my head leading straight to my main goal. Seriously, these levels are so awesome in their design in many cases that if you’re playing with a normal linear game mindset, you will die. This is a game that must be played as if you’re the character itself, because if you can’t think on your feet — even on the easiest difficulty settings — you will die. A lot.
Speaking of difficulties, Styx: Master of Shadows features a difficulty setting above the standard easy/medium/hard that we all know. This is the “Goblin” setting, or as I like to think of it, the “Fuck You Joshua Silverman” setting. Seriously, as a reviewer who usually prefers to play games on their normal difficulty, I found this highest difficulty to just be an absolute nightmare. Enemies can detect you if you do pretty much anything and will kill you on sight. No chance to duel them or even attempt to run away. If even one person sees you, you are dead. If you want to experience Styx: Master of Shadows at its most intense, definitely give the setting a try, but leave me to my medium difficulty if you’d please.
Coming Up Short in Combat
Now that we’re thinking of the game’s combat, let me elaborate and state that there is no combat; not true combat at least. The game touts itself as an adventure that you can play however you like, whether as assassin, stealth agent, or combatant. The truth however is that only the first two are really viable as full gameplay experiences. Simply put, the combat consists in its entirety as a last-ditch effort to stay alive if you accidentally wander out in front of one or two enemies; anymore than that and you may as well just load your saved game.
The game’s fighting consist of an enemy putting you into a duel state, which means you have to parry 1-4 of their attacks before landing a killing blow. There is also the option to evade attacks or insta-kill them with a throwing knife, but as long as you’re only fighting one guy the system is so simple that why would you bother. The problem with the dueling mechanic is that there’s no way to run from your enemies if more than one person is attacking you. Even if you see a path to run along that will take you away from danger to plan your next move, there is just no way to break combat as every person in the area will magnetically pull you into another dueling experience. Again, just accept your death in these situations and reload to a point where you can best avoid combat.
Countering the lackluster combat, the stealth and assassination mechanics are absolutely delightful. Sneaking up for a muffled kill, whether by ledge, the air, or any other means is always satisfying, especially if you go completely unseen. Few things are better in the game than learning an enemy groupings path and sneaking in to poison their food or water — sadly something I didn’t learn to do til late game — as watching each person in succession eat their death and keel over elicits the giddiest of reactions. This of course is all the more enjoyable if it happens to several guards in a row, giving each one just enough time to ponder what happened to their pal right as their own life comes to a painful end. (Hmm, perhaps I should go back into therapy.)
Infused With Amber
While Styx: Master of Shadows managed to sneak up on me, as a good goblin should be able to, it has not gone unnoticed. The game started as yet another review, but has now become a beloved world in my imagination. My only hope is that whether by DLC or a sequel title Styx will get more stories, even if this particular one seems to have come to a defining end.
Styx is a game that everyone who enjoys stealth-based games should try to get their hands on, especially if you can find it on sale. Speaking of which, Steam is currently doing a sale on all Focus Interactive titles, which includes Styx: Master of Shadows for under $25. You can also pick up Of Orcs and Men, which as of writing this I have learned is a 2012 RPG starring Styx at a later time in his story. As such, if you’ll excuse me, I have some more adventures to follow.