Of Orcs & Men didn’t exactly light the world on fire when it released, but it definitely did leave an impression on those who played even just a portion of it. The mix of KotOR style combat, minor stealth mechanics, and quirky main duo lead to an interesting fantasy RPG with bite. Unfortunately, it never lead to a proper sequel, until now in the form of the prequel focusing on only one half of the duo, Styx. Those who have played further into Of Orcs & Men will remember that there were a number of revelations about his true identity and origins, and they’ll be happy to hear they are explored to a fair degree here. The game is as much a second chance at the franchise catching more attention as it is a rebirth of Styx as we knew him. It’s a pity though. Much like in his later day, Styx travels with some rough company.
It’s impossible to talk about the game’s plot really without revealing a major twist that happens about two fifths into the game. This is more a problem because anything interesting in the plot happens after this twist sets things in motion, utilizing a clever plot device that ties into the gameplay. Every bit of story beforehand is rather dull and by the numbers, and the game’s inconsistent use of concept art cutscenes and real-time cutscenes doesn’t do it any favors (the latter of which look quite awful due to horrible lip sync). However, it’s this part of the game that also is the best GAME here. Styx: Master of Shadows is much less a single game, but two very different ones.
The first seven to fifteen (depending on how thorough you are) hours are amazingly good, in spite of a lacking story to back the missions. Each locale is distinctive and flows fantastically. Going through a dockside midday is a completely different yet equal challenge to breaking through a cramp smuggler’s den at night. The game spends very little time worrying about holding your hand, and almost immediately throws you all the necessary tools. You can crouch, stand, and control your speed with the press of a button. The platforming controls emphasize deliberate, free movement instead of Assassin’s Creed style scripted navigation. There is no magic “hold down one button parkour expert” mode, so you’re both a little more at risk but a great deal more free in how you navigate. Sometimes levels can send you in so many twisting and intersecting paths that you’ll realize at least three other solutions to the room you couldn’t get past previously.
Not only can you sneak around with the precision of a Thief game, but your means to kill enemies can eventually reach Hitman-esque levels of creativity. Chandeliers, poisoned food and water, casual shoves off ledges, and more are at your disposal. You can even create a duplicate to distract (or if upgraded, take out) enemies so you can slip by unnoticed. Or maybe you hide the clone under a table, use a throwing knife to kill a guard and alert his friends, run around the corner next to the table, let your clone burst out as a smoke bomb, and run them all through. If you make it look like an accident though, they won’t even come searching for you, so it doesn’t count against you in post-mission stats as being “discovered”. Alternatively you can grab guards and dissolve them with acid, so that no one is the wiser. Or you can go pacifist and merely steal items off their belts while whistling from behind corners to distract them away. You even get a far more balanced version of the special vision mode from Batman: Arkham Asylum, limited both by your Amber (i.e. Mana) bar and a time limit for each use.
The game is just so flexible and so pleasant that it feels like you could play it for hours, and hours. Some missions can go on for two hours or more if you want to clear out all your side objectives and/or find every nook and cranny. There are entire puzzle rooms set aside from the main trail of content, with increasing pressure to test your wit and ability to observe your environment. A few also make great use of your clone, both in stealth and helping you dodge death traps. Plus the ability to save at any time means you can actually -experiment- with ideas instead of a checkpoint system hindering you from exploring your options. That said, auto-saves could be a -little- more frequent around story focused sections.
You can unlock additional abilities while at your hideout, ranging from incredibly mediocre (i.e. having to unlock the ability to kill people around corners and be slightly better at dodging projectiles) to the fantastic (i.e. turning your clone invisible, more inventory space, greater Amber Vision range, etc.). It’s a decent, if basic system, but there’s one aspect you’ll either love or hate. You only can gain more Skillpoints by completing previous missions differently, after you’ve beaten the main game. You can’t just farm Skillpoints, but instead need to beat more side objectives and meet certain criteria (beat a level in 25 minutes, kill no one, etc.). Those who keep coming back and upgrading though are rewarded with the exclusive Predator skill tree that has four new major upgrades that only unlock once you max out two particular skill trees for each ability. Want to see through walls? Gotta master Amber Vision and Inventory. It may turn off the casual player, but hardcore stealth fans would be doing this sort of replaying already, so it just adds a great incentive to test yourself over and over again.
All these elements are tied together by an excellently crafted world. While the game stays light on the politics at play, the world feels distinctly its own brand of dark fantasy, using both elements from old school fables and more modern fantasy like Game of Thrones. The mix of mystical and physical realms colliding leads to some head spinning ideas about personal identity and freedom of will. The world also looks fantastic, with every environment having its own distinct architecture and personality. The Akenash Atrium brings to mind Prince of Persia‘s castle levels, while the sewers evoke an almost Pirates of the Caribbean flair and grime. Tons of little jokes overheard between guards and scientists help put a final personal touch on the world building.
It all just seems to be going so well, and then suddenly you go from playing Styx: The Good Game to playing Styx: The Rushed Hack Job. I don’t know if Cyanide was under time constraints or they just didn’t have the budget, but the game suddenly recycles all its main content. The final missions try to stretch out what is, at most, fifteen hour’s worth of original content over a, roughly, thirty hour period. You’ll revisit two levels not just once, but twice, and you’ll see the rest at least once more. Nothing’s changed about the locations other than the objectives and what enemies populate the region. What’s more, instead of a good sense of variety, almost every new addition becomes an annoyance.
The Roabies are particular grating, with their omnipotent hearing that will send them running if you so much as cough a yard away from them. This once again would be fine if you could at least kill them off easily, but you can’t. Roabies can only be killed when not alerted, even though there’s no change that should prevent you from killing them. They are bugs, with their squishy bodies clearly exposed. Why Styx even has to sneak past instead of just crush them all is never explained, and they never seem to present a threat to anyone besides him. They’ll just walk straight by humans making loud noises. Elves are similar in behavior yet somehow are less a threat than these bugs. The Damned spirits may be the worst though, as they appear out of nowhere, endlessly pursue you unless you sacrifice a clone, and can take out half of your health bar on normal difficulty.
The game is at its best when you’re just dealing with humans, other goblins, and orcs. They’re all familiar; they all mesh together well, and dodging human archers is a lot more fun than creeping past frustrating insects and spirits. Humans have so much more variety as well. They have archers, mages who can freeze Styx in place and are immune to throwing daggers, knights who are immune to anything other than “accidents”, and regular guards of varying danger due to equipment they carry. Orcs are stationary guards who present a threat but can be dealt with either by feeding them a clone or finding a way around them. Goblins are like weaker yet faster human guards.
You can clearly identify each and every enemy, and they all fit like wonderful puzzle pieces. The best rooms feel like slide puzzles where the rules are blurred, like the best parts of Dishonored. The worst rooms shove in these stupid gimmick enemies that serve no purpose other than to infuriate the player. They don’t add anything, and occupy space/impact level design where we could have had more great human, orc, or goblin encounters. Variety may be the spice of life, but too much spice, or spices that don’t mix, and you murder the flavor.
In fact, I’d say that level of excess an attempt to reach some kind of quota seems to be the heart of the issue with Styx. The game could end any number of times during its downward spiral. One section in particular -feels- like a true final boss fight; to the point I kind of think it was, at least at one point in development. However, the game recycles levels you’ve already played and just keeps dragging things on, and on, and on. It throws in enemies it doesn’t need. It does things like add in an escort mission no one ever wanted. It continually stretches its levels to fit a story that easily needed more original content, and I can’t imagine why.
Styx is a perfectly good game for a downloadable title, why Cyanide had to try and stretch it to meet the scale of a AAA game is beyond me. Maybe there was a budgetary concern that forced them to cut back mid-development, but by then they should have cut their losses and not drawn the game out to such an unnecessary length. It is a bad sign when I go from being eager to play a game for review even in my free time, to wishing it would just end alright. Just hours before I wrote this, I hit the finale, and I just was yelling at the game. It didn’t help the game has one of the absolutely worst boss fights every designed.
It’s not built to compliment any of the game design; in fact it outright contradicts the vast majority of the content in the game. It’s a small, circular room, with no elevation, almost no flexibility, and a required set of two waves of the same three enemies to kill. A boss fight for a game like this should be intricate, with many puzzle piece-like elements, from the environment to the AI, all moving together. It should press the player to use every skill they have. Instead, Styx ends on a tedious note of repetitious trial and error.
What makes this particularly perplexing is that it can still be great fun to replay the first few missions in Styx. It’s just once you start replaying them against your will, you start to lose interest and just get annoyed. It stops feeling like a puzzle, and more like you’re beating your head against a wall. This isn’t even hitting on the numerous bugs the game has: AI pathing glitches, AI behavior glitches, incorrect save states that repeatedly would load the scenario differently than it had been saved (sometimes to my benefit, but usually to my chagrin), numerous physics glitches, Styx constantly forgetting he should d*** well grab ledges right in front of him, Styx suddenly moon walking due to a weird animation glitch, detection glitches, collision geometry glitches — the list goes on.
I understand I was playing a still being polished build of the game but some of this stuff feels basic. An enemy should be able to walk into a chair without freaking out and causing a hilarious yet unfortunate display of physics buggery. Enemies should not magically become tone deaf or know where I am because the save system (something I thought would be pretty hard to break in any game besides XCOM: Enemy Unknown‘s PC port) can’t properly keep track of world states half the time. I mean it, if I got a dollar for every fall to my death that resulted from the game not detecting a b***** ledge right in front of me, I’d be able to buy two copies of the game.
I hate saying all this, especially because I still stand by my statement that those first ten or so hours of game time in the beginning of Styx are fantastic. If those were all Styx was, especially combined with the later story revelations, it’d be an immediate 8.5 to 9/10. What could have been the best stealth game this year now will remain a niche title. It’s definitely more Thief than the recent Thief reboot, and it has enough of its own charm to keep some intrigued, but it still feels like a waste. You had it, Cyanide. You had it! A solid successor to Of Orcs & Men, that could have rebuilt some interest in the entertaining universe you created. For whatever reason, you had to push yourselves too far, and now the game has to pay the price. While the game is still budget priced and the promise of some great hours of gameplay may be enough for some, it’s a pity this couldn’t be something more.
The Difficulty Difference: As with some more recent games, Styx comes with a hardcore difficulty — Goblin mode. The most major difference is the removal of the game’s parrying system. While this may sound like a bad thing at first — the parrying system is awful. It drags you out of your normal means of motion, can constantly lock you into combat when you’d rather run away, and is just terribly executed. While it increases how much damage enemies do to you and how easily they can detect you, the fact you can just restart upon detection is actually a blessing in disguise in all but the final boss encounter. You can change your difficulty at any time, but those wanting an added challenge (and a bit less tedious combat before death) may want to give it a whirl.
Styx: Master of Shadows can be both a fantastic and downright horrible game. While it starts out strong, some middling levels that recycle earlier environments and an abysmal final boss fight drag Styx down from being the best game it could have been. Know what you’re getting into, and you can get some fun out of this title, but only the most devoted stealth fans will keep coming back long after Styx’s origin tale concludes. There’s a great stealth game here, but it’s in dire need of either a level editor, challenge mode, or an expansion pack. The story is interesting, with a great series of twists that keep you on your toes, and the game’s aesthetics look great.
Moment of Artistry
Pick pocketing a guard and then having your clone silently grab him into a closet before he rounds the corner. Using Amber Vision to find a short cut that completely changes how you approach the level. Clearing out an entire area without being detected for an instant. Moments like these are Styx at his finest.
+Solid and balanced set of tools and powers
+Great art direction
+Plenty of replay value through multiple side objectives and hidden shortcuts to find
+Level design that remembers a time when levels were more than just narrow corridors strung together
+Extremely flexible gameplay allows for some very creative strategies
+ Slow to start but intriguing origin story
+Decent adventure game style puzzles
– Unstable savegame system that frequently confuses the worldstate
– Repeatedly recycled levels
– Unnecessary enemy types that are just aggravating
– Horrible final boss encounter
– Overstays its welcome without the content to make it last
– Some questionable animations, especially in cutscenes
– Bugs! So many bugs!
Styx: Master of Shadows was developed by Cyanide Studios and published by Focus Home Interactive. It is available on, PC (Steam), PS4, and Xbox One.
This review was conducted with a pre-release review copy of the digital PC version provided by the game’s PR firm.