It’s been a heck of a year for Lovecraft games, huh? Given the (relatively) recent growth in the appreciation of that old racist codger’s fiction, I suppose it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that so many different developers are offering up their own takes on the Lovecraftian mythos, and it’s even less of surprise that many of them just don’t quite stick the landing. I’ve always thought it was difficult to really replicate the themes of the cosmic horror Lovecraft put forward in his stories because…well, how do you even approach that in a video game? Most games that deal with Lovecraftian themes give you some means to fight back or hide from the torrent of alien forces just existing in a world that was previously unseen, but that defeats the point. Players shouldn’t be able to hide from Cthulhu, they shouldn’t be able to whip out a revolver and kill the horrific monstrosities roaming around them. They should be small and weak, as insignificant as everyone else in comparison to the alien deities surrounding us. It’s on that front that Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones perhaps best adapts Lovecraft’s mythos, if you’re willing to be frustrated with just how pathetic you feel in the grand scheme of things.
A traditional Role Playing Game ™ of sorts, Stygian allows players to either start with a predetermined character or build their own as they attempt to solve, or just survive amidst, the mystery of the town of Arkham which has been rudely trapped between two plains of existence. The game does the smart thing of not directly trying to adapt any specific Lovecraft story but rather meshing them all together and forming its own unique narrative. By extension, the writing in Stygian feels far more organic, not tempered or limited to sticking to a specific storyline, which has the added benefit of making the game’s events far more surprising. The story of Arkham and the inhabitants goes places I didn’t expect and while it does suffer from the usual pacing issues of role-playing games that its abundanct quests are often plagued with, it was never enough to prevent me from pressing forward to try and solve the next mystery that would hopefully explain what the Hell was actually going on.
The story is helped along by a range of interesting characters and while none of the dialogue is voiced, it’s incredible the amount of dynamic responses and options the player has in communicating in Stygian. Dialogue options based on skills, traits, quests and even past deeds often come to the foreground and fundamentally change how characters respond to you, many even refusing to speak to you again if you’re caught in a lie or say something disrespectful. Making the system even more interesting is how sanity has an effect on your your interactions. While most Lovecraftian themed games mechanically treat the crudely implemented “sanity meter” (which seems to be becoming a trope in these sorts of games) as a second health bar, Stygian takes this further. The more angst your character builds up, the more this will affect their dialogue, with options being scrawled out and replaced with some…less than desirable phrases. If you let your sanity steep too low you’ll be forced into choosing one of these uncouth options and potentially ruining everything which can admittedly be frustrating but points for having a theme in mind and sticking to it so closely.
Taking the concept of dwindling sanity even further, Stygian also uses the meter to craft a dynamic role-playing system in a move that’s downright genius within a Lovecraftian world. The events you participate in or witness will have lasting consequences on you, your characters developing a myriad of mental disorders as a result of the horrors they’re forced to live with. While there’s definitely a conversation to be had about the implementation and “gamification” of real-world mental health problems, the system provides a gameplay that always felt unique and authentic. After seeing just a few too many people killed, my first character developed severe paranoia, essentially forcing her to randomly attack friendly party members in the middle of combat. Again, frustrating when it happens, but it’s such a mechanically clever way of handling these themes and tropes in a Lovecraftian setting that it makes me really appreciate their implementation.
That’s the weird spot I find myself in with Stygian. While I can appreciate how many of the mechanics were implemented, I would be lying if I said the game didn’t frustrate the hell out of me. Combat, handled through a turn-based system that fits combatants on a grid is…well, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t functional but I hated every encounter I came across. So often was I forced by the game to reload a previous save or restart the combat due to being swarmed by enemies that I didn’t realistically stand a chance against. Even with a fairly decent build (I thought), many of the game’s enemies utterly decimated me and while the system does provide a fairly broad range of strategic options, everything felt just a little too limited to really plan out anything significantly satisfying or impactful. Once your character dies, that’s it. Start over from a save because everything is permanent in this universe. Some players will really enjoy that, I have no doubt, but it just didn’t click for me.
Look, maybe that’s the point. I said it earlier, in a Lovecraftian game the player shouldn’t be able to fight back. They should be the embodiment of the insignificant and weak. So maybe those frustrations of abrupt, game-ending decisions and an excruciatingly punishing combat system are doing their jobs properly. Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones does a fantastic job at communicating the tone of Lovecraft’s work; from the twisted characters to the intentionally stilted and creepy art style, I firmly believe no Lovecraftian-themed game has captured the feeling of being totally helpless the way Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones has. But it’s a double-edged sword, because to so perfectly capture Lovecraft’s writing is to force a level of frustration and confusion onto a player that may be thematically resonant with the source material but often leads to gameplay that can be incredibly arduous to sit through.
Stygian is a difficult game to recommend. Fans of Lovecraft will no doubt adore the faithful adaptions of his work but in order to appreciate all the nuance the developers have placed into creating such a rich world with unique and fantastically written characters, to get to those aspects they’ll have to slog through combat that can be painfully frustrating and tedious.
That being said, Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones is still a really well designed game that takes many mechanics other games have clumsily utilised and actually makes them into a system that works fundamentally well. It’s a game that lives and dies both by it’s in-depth role-playing and commitment to the source material it derives from, but for the most part it’s easily one of the best Lovecraft games I’ve played in a long time.
Last Updated: September 27, 2019