There is something so strangely satisfying about stealth games. Lurking in the shadows undetected, listening in on conversations, using that information to find unique approaches and finally killing off your intended target – maybe it appeals to our inner sociopaths, but it’s obviously compelling entertainment considering how many stealth games are released. So is this the one you need to buy?
Styx: Shards of Darkness differentiates itself by existing in a fantasy world complete with elves, dwarves, trolls and of course, goblins. You play as Styx, a sarcastic, foul-mouthed goblin, which is quite something as he is seemingly the only talking goblin in the world. The game starts with Styx heading off to steal a MacGuffin, only to be tricked. What follows is a strange journey of vengeance, escape, greed and more vengeance. Styx’s motivations often feel more like excuses to just get to the next map for more stealthiness rather than actually form the arc of a compelling storyline.
That said, the core gameplay really is a lot of fun. Styx has a full skill tree to develop, and players can mix and match abilities to suit their preferred play style. I tended to go the straight stealth approach, maxing out my perception and sneaking skills, mainly because the game rewards non-violence for some unexplained reason. At a certain point, though, I decided to stop worrying about that and go back to my preferred way of being, namely killing everything just without being seen. There are a plethora of skills to help with that, although it is a bit odd that it’s a higher level skill to be able to kill a target from a chest or cupboard when that’s standard practice in most other stealth games.
More fantasy-minded players can even make use of Styx’s cloning abilities. Using amber (the special ability gauge), Styx can clone himself and send the clone off to distract enemies, drop chandeliers on them or activate levers. Alternatively, he can use amber to even go invisible for a limited time. It’s a bit fantastical and a nice change from the typical stealth game realism. Styx can even craft various items – from healing potions to poisonous traps and even acid to make bodies disappear – using the different ingredients to make the perfect item for any situation.
It also means that there are a myriad ways to complete each map. Players can make full use of the map, swinging from ropes, moving through tiny tunnels or hanging from the rafters to eventually reach their objectives. Alternatively, they can poison food, kill enemies from hiding spots and set traps to murder and disintegrate guards on patrol. Or, players can opt to use environmental obstacles to their advantage, sending clones to make diversions as they hustle from one area to the next. It’s so satisfying when your plan works, and such a revelation when you remember a different approach and make it work for you.
That said, it often feels like the game is undermining that very freedom. The skill points needed to unlock and upgrade these various abilities are rewarded at the end of each level based on finding secrets, completing the level quickly, not raising any alarms and not killing anyone. This means that if you want optimal scores on each level, you shouldn’t actually take advantage of the various means of murder. In fact, even traditional platforming stealth isn’t exactly encouraged because it takes time to find the guards’ patrol patters and move through them without being detected – surely if you’re going for speed, it’s better to just kill everyone and keep running, even if you raise alarms. It ends up making the game feel like it’s sending mixed messages – does it want me to have fun killing people, as the little laugh Styx has when he pushes guards off ledges would imply? Or am I meant to be a pacifist for no apparent reason except that I get more skill points?
The mixed messages continue in various levels. After one particular section where stealth is paramount, Styx catches sight of a giant quartz crystal (also used for skill upgrades) and decides he needs it, even though it’s attached to an enormous enemy. What follows is a rather drawn out boss battle. A boss battle, in the middle of a stealth game where combat is frowned upon. It just seems strange and rather counterintuitive.
Styx as a character is equally confusing. His voice acting is fun and sarcastic, although it can start to feel a bit like they are trying too hard to be funny at times (although some digs at other stealth games make all the jokes worthwhile), without too much depth of character as all he cares about is greed and occasional vengeance. However, his actual interactions with characters doesn’t always stick to this, and it becomes a bit muddled about who he really is and what he really wants. It doesn’t help that the supporting characters are also rather two-dimensional, both in character development and voice acting.
Styx: Shards of Darkness is a rather visually compelling game. From bright seaports bustling with activity to dark prisons complete with killer plant life, each area is distinct and offers unique opportunities and challenges. I loved wandering around the sunny port area, until I was getting detected because it was harder to find shadows to hide it. Which is why I rejoiced in the dungeon, only to encounter new challenges in the form of bugs that could hear my movements and kill me with their poisonous spit. It was this variety that added so much to the experience, kept each level feeling fresh and forced players to make use of new approaches.
The maps are repeated, but it is explained in the story as Styx makes his way from one area to the next, only to need to return for revenge or to get yet another MacGuffin. While the maps are used in different ways to avoid too much repetition, frustrations the first time around can reappear when you revisit. The movement and particularly platforming can feel really janky, especially when so many other stealth games have added detail that improve upon these frustration. Why not add a prompt of where you want Styx to jump from the ledge, instead of being forced to hope for the best? Why not allow for better movement down rather than just dropping and pray that he actually catches the handhold in front of him? If it’s irritating the first time you experience it on a map, it’s even worse when you get frustrated at the same point, several hours later on a different mission.
It’s also worth noting that the game is not without bugs. I had quite a few frame drops, particularly in the brightly lit, colorful maps. Additionally, the AI seems to get confused far too easily. I’d get guards that got stuck and couldn’t patrol, or trolls that were locked into a pillar. Even detection didn’t always seem to run smoothly, where simply being in the same area with a guard could lead them to detect me at some times, other times they appeared to have no peripheral vision at all.
Still, with many hours of stealthy gameplay on offer, Styx: Shards of Darkness can be a lot of fun to play. Thanks to plenty of secrets, and the promise of good emblems and extra skill points if you complete levels quickly, without detection or killing, there’s plenty of replay value as well. Plus, if you want to kill with others, there’s even an all-new co-op gameplay mode. I still prefer my stealthy murder games on my own, but this is nice for those who want an accomplice in crime.