Styx: Master of Shadows is a game that I had an interest in when it was first announced but I wasn’t sure that the game itself was enough to justify a 30 bucks price tag. My problem with games that proclaim that they’re “stealth” is that the majority of these games are not stealth at all, but rather action stealth or games that just feature stealth mechanics without everything else being build around it.
Action-stealth, a genre that absolutely dominated the market thanks to franchises like Metal Gear Solid or Deus Ex and the disappearance of pure stealth games like Thief, of which the original trilogy counts as the highest bar to reach for pure stealth-games to come. So, as someone who really enjoys stealth games, knows the differences between the sub-genres and being sick about games claiming to be something that they’re not, let’s head into Styx and see if this is a game that keeps its promises.
We are in a rather traditional fantasy world, medieval times, elves etc., nothing we haven’t seen before. The twist is that, like the Thief series, this game has steam punk and also magic elements thanks to an alliance between humans and elves concerning the “ember”. The ember originates from trees, which are owned by the elves except for one that is in control of the humans. Ember is an extremely dangerous substance, it makes the user extremely addictive, can serve as acid, pollutes the air, makes the user hear voices in his/her head and to top it all off, mutates the user in some cases. One of those cases is our ember-addicted protagonist, the Goblin Styx, who is the only one of his kind. We see him complaining about his constant headaches and he has a goal: Reach the heart of the tree and… do something. He didn’t really think about what to do once he reached it yet so why does he want to do it? He’s starting to loose his mind and wants to do one last thing he’s certain that it’s something he chose to do. Part of his plan is to be captured and the following interrogation scenes, supported by visually really nicely drawn images, serves as a way to tell the story of the game. These image scenes are also influenced by the Thief series but in addition to that, this game has also cut scenes that are rendered in-game, which sometimes results in some unnatural looking lip-syncing and animations.
The second half of the story throws much more information at you than the first half and some people are probably going to be confused about what’s happening right now and the ending itself but if you keep yourself interested, then you shouldn’t have too much trouble to understand the plot. The story itself is tightly written and I really enjoyed it, as it gave much insight into a world we haven’t exactly seen before despite first appearances, it also helps that we play a non-human protagonist who can be described as “sarcastic, sadistic and a total ass”. Styx is a very interesting character rivaling even the likes of Garrett and I would love to see more of him. Actually I could if I would play the 200-years later sequel “Of Orcs and Men” but that’s a totally different game so I’ll pass for now.
To make it short: The story really kept me going and while the second half doesn’t have the same energy that the first half had (because of the gameplay in the second half, but more on that later), it still had my interest and the ending has a sense of finality while leaving enough plot threads open for a sequel, something I don’t really enjoy but I felt rewarded for what Styx had to go through. However, the voice acting of one character that appears later is really, really bad in one scene. A supposedly dramatic scene while the voice acting sounds like he is reading off a paper? It made me laugh but I can’t help but feel that this scene could have actually left some impact. Outside of that, there are only a few scenes with some weird voice acting, the voice of Styx however does a great job throughout the entire game which is good, as you hear him for the majority of the game.
Before covering the gameplay, let me take away one thing: This is a stealth game.
Alright now that I told you that, let’s see what you can do. The game is played in a third person perspective without the annoying shoulder-perspective and switches into a first person perspective if you pass through narrow spaces like vents. You play a Goblin, which makes you very acrobatic and also lets you pass through small spaces, as well as walk on very thin planks etc.. Playing as Styx is very refreshing, not only because finally you don’t play a human or a human with longer ears or a human with blue skin and big ti… fan service. Playing as Styx is fun. He can jump pretty high, can hold onto any ledges and if you hold space, you can keep hanging on a ledge. He can also lean against objects and walls, making it possible for him to walk around a corner while still hiding or to use items and, with a skill you can learn later, even sneak-kill enemies. Styx can also sneak, walk slowly in favor of being more silent, have his normal running speed, roll around, kill enemies with his dagger either noisy and quick or long and silent, he can use his ember vision which lets him detect climbable hooks etc. more easily, spawn a clone of himself, make himself invisible, interact with items like torches or cranes and finally he can hide in objects like chests.
That’s a lot to take in, but I’ll make it simple. When spawning his clone Rakkash, you can take control of Rakkash with whom you can do things like distract enemies, make the clone commit suicide, jumps on an enemies head and hinder him from moving and other than that, basically everything that Styx can do except for killing and stealing, also both can poison water and food with their Goblin spit, which will kill enemies that consume said nourishment. Invisibility is a powerful ability that consumes a lot of your ember for a very brief time to be absolutely unseen. Emphasis on “unseen” as enemies can still hear you, which you can use to your advantage but can also be very much to your disadvantage as enemies can also still feel you, so you must be careful and dodge them. You also always have to keep an eye out for objects like buckets in order not to put unneeded attention on yourself if you run against them. Your ember, a meter that decreases if you use your abilities, is refilled by consuming ember-potions. Luckily, the ember meter always refills itself to the point where you can use clones or ember-vision which, at occasions, can be heavily abused but it makes sense as both are giving you much insight into the vast level design. For example: Your clone can sometimes crawl underneath a door which is too narrow for even Styx to do or, with the help of ember-vision, you can maybe spot a bunch of hooks around the room to help you find a vent with which you can progress further, or you just walk around that obstacle and find another way.
The only things you really have to look out for are your health, which decreases extremely fast if you dare to engage in battle or get falling damage (from a reasonable height) and especially the guards, which can do heavy damage or might even kill you in one hit.
Sounds unfair? Well, you’re a Goblin, it makes sense and even on the easiest difficulty this game will be a challenge. The highest difficulty is extremely brutal with really aggressive guards that, no matter what kind of guard, can kill you in one hit and are very quick and precise. I suggest you to play the normal difficulty which, in my opinion, is the best way to experience this game for the first playthrough. Luckily, up until the very end there are always new enemies introduced and these force you to change your way to approach things. There are soldiers that wear helmets and are immune to your throwing knives, crossbow archers with special armor can always kill you in one hit or the knights who are outright immune to both your dagger and knives, forcing you to be very creative in getting rid of them or just to walk around them. There are going to be more enemies than just these three so be prepared for a game that gets more and more difficult.
Speaking of knives, Styx can use a variety of items outside of his normal weapon, these include mentioned throwing knives, of which you can carry two. With them you can kill enemies or cut ropes from a distance. Then there are the health and ember potions of which you can carry two each, five units of sand that you can throw at torches to put them out from far away and finally an acid potion that you can use for dissolving dead bodies to prevent them from being found. You can also carry the dead bodies and put them in chests or closets to hide them because if guards find them, they’ll draw their weapons, call for backup, look for the murderer in close proximity, change their patrol route and be more aware of their surroundings and that’s bad for you. There are two factors that decide if you are seen by guards or not: The game shows you in form of a yellow meter if a guard has spotted something and not sure of it yet but once that meter is full and turns orange, the guard will go and investigate the area where that thing was seen. Bad for you though, once they want to investigate anything, they always call for backup and if they spot you they will run after you screaming, causing even more and more guards to become aware of your presence.
Moments like these, when the AI works like how it’s supposed to, is when the game can make for intense memories and in general, this game is a good stealth game thanks to what you can do and especially how you achieve your goals. The level design is so good that it rivals the likes of Deus Ex and the original Thief games, the freedom and possibilities that are given to the player is something that is actually superior to many, many big-budget games out there and the level design as well as the flexible character controls are the greatest strengths of this game. Add to that an experience system that, if you complete main objectives, side quests and the four bonus tasks which always consist of “never get spotted throughout the mission”, “don’t kill anyone except if a side quest wants you to”, “complete the mission under a certain amount of time” and finally “gather all coins”. Each of the seven, eight if you count in the tutorial, missions are separated into three or four sections with each of them having ten coins to collect. If you only go for the main quest, you should be able to complete the game in around eight hours but you will miss out on at least half of the game then and you’re going to miss most of the detailed level design. If you do those extra missions though, expect a journey that can last somewhere from 12 to 25 hours.
With said experience points you can upgrade your abilities, with one skill tree unlocking very late in the game. You can always replay all missions of the game, even after the ending thanks to your hideout. Only in your hideout can you upgrade yourself, go to the next mission and replay past missions. All of the upgrades can be used for something and none of them, except for some of the battle upgrades, are useless.
The game isn’t flawless though. There are several features that should be here but aren’t and there are a lot of problems with what we have.
There is no rivalry between enemy factions, meaning that even though the story states otherwise, enemies never attack each other unless it’s scripted which ruined many of my plans and breaks immersion. Then there is the lacking ability to pick up stuff and throw them around, you can’t hang onto ledges and climb around a corner, you only have the choice of killing or not killing as there isn’t an option to just temporarily knock someone out, you can’t pull people into chests and kill them while hiding in them but your clone can, with an upgrade you can get later, do that.
The AI is pretty bad too at times, they do many things but once you figure them out, you can easily abuse them later. They don’t react to an open door or opening doors for that matter, only if it is scripted. They don’t notice their comrades suddenly missing or use tactics while searching for someone as they are not really thorough while looking anyway. The biggest flaws is still that they don’t react to their natural enemies, which really annoyed me.
There are basically only four levels in the game, as all maps are used at least once more during the game with enemies being assigned to new locations and are replaced by stronger variants, items being put into new places and new objectives for you to complete. This can get old really quickly as two of those maps are recycled in a very bad way (barely any changes at all) while the last two are finally recycled in a good and interesting way, still only having recycled levels for the second half of the game comes off as lazy and it is tedious to say the least. Finally there are vents and locked doors which are impossible to go through but the game doesn’t show or tell you that, sometimes resulting in you dying because you expect something to work that the game has shown you working a hundred times before.
Speaking of expecting to work, the controls. You want to play this game with a controller but both control schemes feature problems, because climbing is sometimes bugged and hanging onto ledges just outright doesn’t work at rare occasions. I was also stuck in a wall once by leaning onto it, saving and reloading and autosaving is sometimes really bad. The autosave feature happens the second you complete a certain task, leading to bad reloading points as you are often in sight of the guards, which is connected to another big problem. The loading doesn’t work quite as you would expect, the game saves the general information like position of the guards, what stance they have, which torches are out etc. but the game resets the minor information like “did the guard see this body yet” or the position of a bucket, all of it gets reset. You can, after knowing that, abuse that system to your advantage but often times it’s actually a hindrance to have all guards suddenly alerted to your presence again because that one knight, I killed by dropping a chandelier on him, is spotted again and all guards in close proximity come to take a look and start to look for me.
That doesn’t also begin to describe the wasted potential with additional weapons, more abilities, bribing someone, taking hostages, more creative ways to kill enemies and stuff like double take-downs.
In short: This game is a solid stealth game with many flaws which will lead to frustration. However, it is still enjoyable and with the exception of being stuck in the wall once during the course of my 18 hours of playing time, I encountered no game-breaking bugs which is amazing considering the huge level design.
On the technical aspect there are more issues though, the game has jaw-dropping scenery that, up close, can look pretty ugly. I also had some unreasonable rare frame drops (around 8 times during my playthrough) and lots of rag doll glitches. There are some other glitches like guards being in a wall with half of their body etc. but overall, for a game featuring such huge areas, there are surprisingly few bugs. The game won’t age well however and can be shortly described as a somewhat uglier version of Dishonored.
The game features a big orchestra, delivering a very spot-on ambient soundtrack, not one of the best I’ve heard but it’s still really good and shouldn’t bore you. Sadly, most tracks don’t stay in your head for a very long time but I enjoyed listening to it.
So, what is this game doing good for its genre?
It’s a solid stealth game that can be classified as such without it being a bad marketing stunt. It features massive level design which offers you a lot of choices in how to achieve your objectives and in how to complete the level, the upgrades for your character makes sense and exploring is rewarded. Styx is a very interesting character with an engaging story and good voice acting. He is also a very dynamic character as you have to use all of his abilities to get the most of the game without these feeling tagged on. The game also has a good soundtrack.
What could have been improved?
Some fundamental stealth features a missing, the controls aren’t exactly fine tuned to perfection, the guards repeat the same lines too often, levels are recycled later on with the game ironically giving both examples of good recycling and bad recycling. One particular scene has horrible voice acting and guards needed a big AI improvement. The greatest flaw of them all however is the missing interaction between enemies which takes you out of the experience.
Pure stealth games aren’t and never were mainstream. Do you like true stealth games? Do you like the original Thief games? Then you should play Styx: Master of Shadows. However, be aware that the story can get confusing and there are a lot of flaws that can lead to frustration. You get a good soundtrack but the technical aspect is lacking. On the other hand, this game boosts some awesome potential and if the developer fixes the issues and focuses on more levels or at least recycling the levels in a much more interesting way then we might have a series that can rival even the very best of stealth games out there. Personally, I can’t wait for the sequel.
Game tested on: PC
Version: Final Version