The Styx series has gone largely unnoticed. Now its third installment (second in prequel storyline) titled Shards of Darkness, following 2014’s Master of Shadows, it has received somewhat of a cult following. Solely stealth games are hard to get right. Usually stealth is a supplementary element to mainly action RPGs like Shadow of Mordor and the Batman Arkham series, but then you get something like Dishonored where it is far more integral in terms of narrative and storyline than gameplay objectives and rewards. There are also 2D beauties like Mark of the Ninja, something that has convinced me that stealth is best limited to only two dimensions. Styx: Shards of Darkness is unable to sway my opinion elsewhere, but was nonetheless an enjoyable experience to a fan of Master of Shadows.
Styx is the goblin anti-hero of this world. A thief, assassin, and total scumbag, Styx is a selfish criminal. Approached by the leader of an anti-goblin brigade (for some reason Styx can talk and other goblins can’t?), Styx is soon swept up in some political intrigue that takes him to varied environments, something that Shards really excels at. The story is fairly interesting and compelling, but Styx is a bit too much of an asshole to actually like, resulting in a confused tone throughout the whole game. The “reluctant hero” is tried and true, so it is always good to see a new perspective as the main playable character, but Cyanide Studios were hit-and-miss with the character of Styx. He is VERY rude. He swears, talks of bodily functions, and makes comments about brothels and prostitutes. Of course the intention is meant to shock and disgust, which I can appreciate. But in doing so, Styx almost isolates himself from the world. The world is a shitty one, yeah, and you see the slums. But Styx is a boy’s interpretation of an R-rated protagonist in an M-rated world. Plenty of effort was put into Styx’s lines and dialogue, some which I genuinely laughed at (they have a very nice Dishonored reference in the first mission) but others which you could tell the writers were really straining with. Also, it would be better if the other voice actors and lines of dialogue were as good and varied.
Gameplay wise, not that much has really changed since the first one. Pickpocketing, lockpicking, throwing sand to extinguish torches, and “assassinating” are some of the skills Styx has at his disposal. I put “assassinating” in quotation marks, because while this is technically what you do and Styx is an assassin, the combat is incredibly weak. Being a supernatural creature, a wiry little drug addict, you’d think a muscular assassin goblin should be good at killing enemies. Being small is obviously an advantage in terms of line-of-sight and movement, but of course a hindrance for combat. Styx has a previous adventure catalogued in Master of Shadows, and no doubt countless more before and between this installment, so why is he so rubbish at assassinating? My connotations with the word “assassin” (at least in the fantasy context) is of a trained assassin. Someone with elegance to their killings and work. Someone able to skulk in the shadows, but also make quick work of their target. Styx is a great thief, but not an assassin. Styx can be creative with killings, and of course with upgrades he gets much better, but it doesn’t make much sense for him to really struggle despite his experience. Not only is this an issue of continuity plotwise, but it’s also a big issue with gameplay. The actual mechanics for combat are just parry and kill. No throwing or spitting in eyes, no slashing of Achilles’ tendons or castration. These are methods I would expect someone of Styx’s stature and style to adhere to, except the player has no creative input into the hand-to-hand combat. While it is a stealth game, I understand the heavy focus on stealth, but this does not call for combat to be so lacklustre. If an assassin or thief was caught in a tight spot, you would expect someone of their trade and caliber to be able to handle themselves in a fight.
On top of this, the AI is atrociously robotic. Guards are depressingly identical and predictable. Once you’ve analysed their movement, you can easily kill them with an environmental hazard, or just sneak past. Level design however is entertaining, and I was constantly excited to see the next level and buildings. Shards was always a nice game to look at, but Styx himself has clearly received the most attention. After all, I expect it would be easier to animate movements for a supernatural creature rather than idle facial animation for humans.
Perhaps I have too high of a standard for fictional assassins. A game like Dishonored has more than the sole super-stealthy approach. Developers Cyanide would know of Dishonored of course, and I think inspiration from different possible play styles would be beneficial to this game. Each mission has medals that start off at gold, then decrease to silver and bronze depending on speed, your swag (stolen goodies not snapbacks), killings, and alarms raised. This results in Shards requiring a lot of patience. Having an alternative set of medals for a high-violence, terror, and mayhem playthrough would have given the game more replayability. Stealth games take pride in their level design, offering several alternative routes to the one objective, prompting players to look everywhere for nooks and crannies, ropes and paths. With this inherent variety of direction in stealth games, it would be nice to see that surface to play style too, especially since this sequel clearly has a bigger budget than Master.
Shards of Darkness is more innovative in setting than the likes of its competitors. The budget shows with pretty stunning cutscenes (bar the voice-acting and lip-syncing) and brilliant setting. I love the world of Styx, but it does feel a little shallow at times. For a fan of the first one like myself, Shards felt quite similar to Master of Shadows, but was still entertaining enough to keep me playing, perhaps even for a third play through.