It’s not often that I’ll out-and-out go for a stealth game. Firstly, and probably most unbelievably for those that know me, I don’t seem to have the patience. Secondly, I love a good digital punch-up. It’s a surprising thing to learn then, that I really enjoyed the first iteration of the Styx series, Master of Shadows. There was a good combination of stealth and action, with some humour and a little bit of sneaking around. It was an Assassin’s Creed for the fantasy lovers, only without so much of the gratuitous violence. How would Styx: Shards of Darkness measure up firstly as a sequel, and secondly, as a step on from the first title?
Styx: Shards of Darkness takes up where Master of Shadows left off. The titular green-skinned hero is living in Korrangar, the city of the Dark Elves, scrabbling a living by taking contracts for petty thefts from human criminals. The game reintroduces you to the mechanics of moving Styx around for this initial mission. You’ll learn the basics of hiding as well as climbing, jumping, rope-slides, and the abilities you’ll use that are granted by the goblin’s addiction to Amber. Amber gives you specific powers, such as Amber Vision, very much similar to Eagle Vision in Assassin’s Creed, or the uncanny and fairly gross ability to cough up a clone of Styx and control it.
After you’ve successfully completed this prologue mission, you should be equipped with pretty much all you need to blend into the background and silently move yourself around the city. This is great, as the very next mission you’ll be presented with needs you to sneak aboard one of the Ambassador’s sky-vessels. This will push your skills to the limit. You’ll need to utilise your Amber Vision, which highlights not only the useful pick-ups, platforms and ropes, but more importantly, enemies.
Styx is massively strong, his acrobatic skills are testament to this, but when faced with human confrontation, the battle is by no means a foregone conclusion. Indeed, with the humans having formed C.A.R.N.A.G.E, a militia designed to stop the Green Plague, your plight and any mission you’re on is made harder by vigilant armed men, or dwarves, patrolling the areas you need to make your way to.
The arena you’re faced with aren’t flat, thankfully. A lot of thought and care has been taken in level design and if you’re patient enough, you’ll find there’s more than one route to the destination you’re after. You’ll find handy, quiet, thatched rooftops as well as attic beams to traverse. There are trunks and barrels to hide in at strategic points if required, or ledges to dangle off in an effort to stay undetected. These offer optional kill or mercy choices during your missions. My own stance on that is that it’s easier to complete your missions when there’s less aggressive enemies around but you’ll probably have your own play-style and that’s the beauty of Styx: Shards of Darkness. You can identify traps with your Amber Vision and set them accordingly, or use some particularly gross goblin vomit to poison food or water.
Like Master of Shadows, there is a welcome return to Styx staples like a pocketful of sand. This still allows you to extinguish torches from distance, usually to draw enemies closer to finish them off. You also get breakable distractions like flasks or empty glasses. Equip and toss them liberally to get rid of the guards. There’s a whole host of other collectibles to pick up too, some almost as a side mission. You can tear down C.A.R.N.A.G.E recruitment posters or collect other items for rewards or to craft useful things, such as darts. The useful stuff can be crafted at various points around the area you’re in, or at your home, deep in the slums of Korrangar.
The city is dark. Too dark in some respects and as there is usually more than one path to your goal, the likelihood is that you’ll end up getting lost and spend a lot of time checking patrol patterns to find your optimum kill point. It can become tedious, as does the sheer amount of dying you’ll do. Yes, you’ll die a lot. This is tempered by the fact that, as opposed to Master of Shadows, you can run away from a fight and hide until the heat is off. Given Styx’s hit and miss ‘parry’ feature, this is probably the best way to go about it.
One thing that the game lacks is a map. Too many times, I focused in on an unsuspecting C.A.R.N.A.G.E member, casually looking the other way, when another enemy wanders around the corner to discover and kill me. Amber Vision only goes so far, and cannot see through walls. You can use a nod to an RPG system to extend attributes for Styx, like extending Amber Vision, the time your clones get to spend roaming around and a few other things.
This isn’t to say that Styx is the perfect game. The later stages re-use earlier environments and with this comes the familiarity that this brings. There are some extra sections accessible here, but a few new areas would’ve been great. The locations that you do get are incredibly detailed though, if a little dark. As mentioned, each place you’re asked to explore is lushly drawn and they are a veritable rabbit warren of tunnels, rooms and rooftops. A beautiful killing field of multiple levels.
The voice-acting is adequate, with your foes chatting away in the background, all except for Styx, who wise-cracks away like Bruce Willis in an action-movie. The environment produces noise, like when you accidentally knock a chair, highlighted in blue in Amber Vision. This in turn, alerts the guard, whatever form you’re facing them in, so stealth in it’s purest form is the name of the game. Pick your targets and dispatch them at the right time, but most importantly, do it quietly.
Control-wise, Styx responds well to most of your commands, with the only issue I had being the drop to ledge option. Its almost like it needs a specific set of conditions in order for it to work correctly. Other than that, Styx is very responsive and so are the guards. When it all boils down to it, there’s enough give in the gameplay overall to make these little niggles more than bearable.
Styx: Shards of Darkness is a stealth game above all else. The settings you need to creep around are beautifully crafted and conceived. Sights are not usually complete without sounds, and from water, to wind, to the occasional footstep of the imminently-doomed foes you’re about to encounter, Styx rounds the experience off nicely. The story is interesting enough to wrap all of this neatly into a stealth game that won’t hear you creeping up on it until it’s too late. Shards of Darkness is a worthy successor to critically acclaimed Master of Shadows. Go buy it.