Without a doubt the most difficult game type to succeed with is stealth games. When done right stealth games can be some of the best gaming experiences ever made, but there’s so much that can go wrong. In every stealth game it all comes down to control. If you feel perfectly in control of your character and his/her actions, the game will succeed. If you feel like your character doesn’t respond the way they should, you’ll be in for a bad time. So in which camp does Styx: Master of Shadows fall?
Unfortunately, Styx lands squarely in the latter, where clunky mechanics and inconsistent systems make for a frustrating experience all around. The game isn’t without its merits; unfortunately the positives all lie in areas that aren’t as important. You play as Styx, a goblin thief looking to steal the heart of the World Tree. Playing as “the monster” in a game with mostly human characters is certainly interesting and a different twist. In addition, the game looks decent and has pretty good music as well.
There are some fundamental systems that work in theory. Light is important, and hiding in dark places helps keep you out of sight. You have a finite resource, similar to Bioshock’s vigor, that allows you to go invisible for brief periods, make clones of yourself, and enter a mode that is essentially like Batman’s “detective mode”. It’s neat to limit some of these features behind a finite and often scarce resource, and it makes for some interesting challenges and trade-offs.
All these positives would prove to be real strengths if it weren’t for how bad this game feels when playing. There is stealth, but it’s significantly worse than the stealth in Assassin’s Creed, Batman, or Shadow of Mordor. There’s traversal, but it’s WAY worse than all those games and pretty much any other traversal game (Uncharted, Tomb Raider, et al). There’s a parry-based combat, but it’s leagues behind that of Dishonored. Everything Styx does, it does well below the standard set by countless games over the last 5-8 years. The mechanics here really feel like they belong to a mediocre PS2 game.
Stealth is a very difficult genre, and I’m not denying that, but there are two things that absolutely must be handled well to make these games work. First, there needs to be established and predictable rules in place to govern when a player is hidden and when they are visible. Viewing distance, the effects of height and darkness, as well as time to enemy alertness all need to remain consistent for a player to know how to approach a situation. Second, once discovered there needs to be some ability to escape from danger in the form of either a fight or flight response. A player needs to be able to get out of a hairy situation instead of just having to start over.
Styx fails completely on both accounts. Sometimes I walked right past a guard in broad daylight, right in front of him, and I wasn’t detected. Sometimes I crept by quietly in the dark 100 metres away with the guard’s back 3/4 turned away from me, yet somehow he saw me and madness ensued. When you’re spotted it seems like a little alarm goes off in the head of every A.I. guard in a 2 mile radius. No cry out for help is necessary; every guard on the map is upon you right away. This becomes a real problem when your escape options are extremely limited leading to frustration.
Running away doesn’t really work, as most guards throw projectiles with deadly accuracy that stun you. Fighting doesn’t work either because each guard needs to be countered perfectly three times before they can be killed, all while more guards flood to the scene to ‘take you down’. Making a clone doesn’t work, it mostly just gets in the way of your escape. Going invisible is really the only thing that works, and invisibility is restricted to a very tight 4-5 seconds. Furthermore, you can only really do it once before you need a refill on your already scarce power.
The only saving grace I can find for Styx: Master of Shadows is that it only costs $30.00 at launch. At that price, there may be some hardcore stealth fans who might find some enjoyment here. If this were a 60 dollar product it would be a crushing disappointment for many. At $30.00, it’s merely an inferior game that you probably shouldn’t play, but you could do worse. Styx’s stealth is less “Master of Shadows” and more like the lyric from his namesake band “This jig is up. The news is out. They finally found me.”
***This game was reviewed on a PC via a Steam code provided by the publisher***