Review: Styx: Master of Shadows (Xbox One)

Styx: Master of Shadows is a strangely disappointing game for me. Not because I thought it would be particularly great prior to release, but for the first few hours I was really enjoying the game. Styx began as a fun throwback to stealth games of old, where it's often ideal to avoid enemies entirely by finding specific routes through the environment. Styx left me with a good first impression.

However, about halfway through Styx, the game completely runs out of steam. All of the minor flaws that I noticed early on had now been magnified as they kept on cropping up time and time again. Also, the level design is structured in such a way that you have to play through the first half of the game in reverse, more or less. It took me somewhere between 20 to 30 hours to finish Styx and by the end, I was begging for it to be over. Styx at its core is a decent game, but it squanders most of its potential thanks to its repetitive gameplay, clumsy controls and long load times. Styx is one of those rare occasions of a game being too long. Far too long.

In Styx: Master of Shadows, you play the titular character, who is a sly, sniveling, selfish goblin. For the twelve or so people who played Of Orcs and Men (myself included), you may recognise Styx from that game and Master of Shadows serves as a prequel. However, you don't need to play Of Orcs and Men as the game doesn't explicitly tie into that game at all and aside from the dark fantasy setting and Styx himself, the two games bare little relation to each other. 

That on its own is a disappointment. Of Orcs and Men was a middling game overall but I did like the game's setting and characters. Styx himself was a memorable character and his relationship with big Orc companion Arkhail was entertaining to witness. However, Arkhail is completely absent in Master of Shadows and Styx by himself isn't a very good character. In Of Orcs and Men, Styx was a dick but an entertaining and likable one. In Styx: Master of Shadows, Styx is just a dick, dick.

It also doesn't help that the core storyline featured in Master of Shadows is poorly told and hard to follow. Things kick off OK, with Styx wanting to get his grimy mitts on the heart of the World Tree. This World Tree is the source of all Amber, a substance that Styx is afflicted with, as it is the source of all his powers. The first half of the game, the story is straightforward but it's nothing special. However, there is a sudden twist that occurs halfway through that I won't spoil but I will say it was potentially cool but because the twist is so abrupt, it came across as being cheap and poorly executed. Of Orcs and Men had set up an interesting world with some entertaining characters but all of that is absent in Styx: Master of Shadows.

As I mentioned earlier, Styx: Master of Shadows is a pure stealth game, something of a departure compared to Of Orcs and Men which was a RPG. If you only started playing stealth-based games in the past five years, with the newer Splinter Cell games or even the Batman Arkham games, it might take you quite a while for you to adjust to Styx. Developers in recent times have decided to give stealth a fast-paced and aggressive edge to it, so it appeals to a more action orientated audience.

As a result, Styx: Master of Shadows has a distinctly PS2/Xbox era vibe about it, taking it's cues from games like the original Splinter Cell, Manhunt and Metal Gear Solid. Nothing that Styx does from a gameplay standpoint is particularly new or original. Stealth kills, hiding in wardrobes, disposing dead bodies; you've seen all of this sort of stuff before.

However, Styx gets some mileage out of the game's dark fantasy setting and the fact that you are playing a goblin. Due to Styx's small size, he can make sure of crawlspaces and he can also hide under tables and other objects. He is also fairly agile, as he can use different grab points in the levels in order to scale walls. You will also be using ledges and Styx's jumping ability in order to progress. Styx can also use Amber in order to perform spells. There aren't too many, but Styx can become invisible, create clones - to distract guards, and activate goblin vision - in order to highlight guards and interactive parts of the environment. Styx has plenty of tools at his disposal.

The problem is that all of the traversal stuff is fiddly and awkward. Unlike more modern games like Assassin's Creed or Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, where a lot of traversal controls are automated or sticky in a way that it's hard to make a mistake. Styx doesn't hold your hand at all, so it's pretty easy to fail ledge grabs or platform jumps you are able to make. 

This problem is magnified by the fact that this is a stealth game. You are probably going to be jumping around a lot and making use of the vertical nature of most of the levels in Styx. However, because it is easy to fumble a simple jump, you might end up alerting all of the guards below or even worse, you might just jump and die as Styx does take fall damage.

You might also die regularly from the different enemies in the game. As this is a stealth game, combat should definitely be considered as a last resort. It also doesn't help that combat is particularly bad. When an alert guard approaches you, you will be in a one-on-one dueling mode and all you have to do from here is time your button presses in such a way you can parry all incoming attacks. While you are in this duel mode, you are completely unable to defend yourself from any other attackers, meaning if you are surrounded by a group of enemies, then you are just toast. The parrying mechanic sounds solid on paper but in reality, it doesn't work very well as the game doesn't do a great job of letting you know when you should press the button in order to perform a successful parry. So while the combat is really quite awful, it is a stealth game and at least they tried something a bit different. 

Styx is a frustrating game overall and that partially is to be expected from the genre. Stealth titles are known to be a trial-and-error type of affairs, and Styx is no different. A lot of playing through Styx for the first time is simply experimenting, trying different tactics and routes to see what works. The game allows you to save anywhere at anytime which helps alleviate a lot of potential frustration but when you do die though, you have to go through a thirty second load time every time. So as long as you remember to save regularly, you are probably not going to lose an awful lot of progress in Styx but just having to deal with such long loading times on a regular basis is painful.

The game also features a needless leveling and skill tree system. I have been vocal on my distaste for stealth based games with RPG mechanics and Styx has not changed my mind on the matter. The reason why I hate RPG mechanics in stealth games is because I feel artificially handicapped and restricted in how I want to approach any given situation. All of the core skills that I mentioned earlier are available without having to spend any experience points. However, many of the upgrades feel so important that I feel like you should have them from the get go. For example, you can't perform instant kills from around corners without buying the skill first. While it is nice that most of the skills present on the skill tree are helpful, a lot of them should be available to you from the beginning. 

When Styx works as it should, it is an enjoyable game. The core stealth mechanics work well. The game does a good job of letting you know when you are visible or not and whether or not you are being spotting by an enemy. The levels are also very well designed and allow you take on all of the games objectives from several different angles. The game also does a good job of introducing more challenging enemies as the further you get, adding a steady level of challenge throughout.

But Styx: Master of Shadows has too many big problems that really grate on you after a while. And as I mentioned earlier, I couldn't stand the fact I had to play through the first half of the game again but backwards. I rarely say this because I know making videogames is very difficult, but this design decision just feels lazy. In order to make the game size as long, let's just make the player play through the previous levels again. Even though the game is longer than most at 20-30 hours, I would have been happy enough if the game was half as long.

Graphically, Styx looks pretty dated across the board. The game utilises Unreal Engine 3 and it does feature some good looking models and nice lighting effects but generally, UE3 is starting to become a rather old game engine at this point and Styx unfortunately doesn't push the capabilities of the software very hard. There are also plenty of little bugs and polish issues. Clipping is rampant, dead bodies are seemingly weightless and the game camera can often be pushed through walls. It's just not a particularly good looking game, especially compared to all of the new games coming out at the moment.

The sound design throughout Styx is well-executed though. The sound effects used work well, the voice acting is hammy but entertaining and the soundtrack is great, using violins and other string instruments to create a sombre atmosphere throughout.

Styx: Master of Shadows could have been something great. Even though Styx himself isn't a great character, there is something oddly appealing about a stealth game where you get to play as a little goblin guy, ruining the lives of those horrible humans. While Styx has a cool setting, the core gameplay is unremarkable and there are too many glaring flaws throughout that hinder the experience. Styx is cheaper than most games at only $30/£25 but it is still not worth it.


TWO OUT OF FIVE

(A bad game with an abundance of flaws which outweigh its positive aspects)