You know that when the spin-off game in your Tolkein-esque fantasy franchise swaps out role-playing action for intuitive stealth gameplay and is positively received by both critics and fans, you’ve probably made the right choice.
It’s for this reason that you can’t blame developer Cyanide for doing a sequel to 2014’s Styx: Master of Shadows rather than their original Of Orcs and Men.
The foul-mouthed titular goblin has sneaked his way back onto consoles and PC in the form of Styx: Shards of Darkness, offering a fun but relatively safe sequel to a rather under-appreciated game. Despite not doing too much to stand out from the crowd, Shards of Darkness manages to be a fairly impressive release that should appeal to fans of the stealth genre – even in the current climate in which we find ourselves drowning in massive AAA experiences.
Set a significant amount of time after Master of Shadows, Shards of Darkness opens in spectacular fashion, with a gorgeous cinematic cut-scene which sees our creeptacular anti-hero up to his old tricks again in the middle of a heist. While being very representative of the 15-20 hour experience of sneaking, shuffling, and shadowing your way through the darkness, this cut-scene is also a clear indication of this sequel’s higher production values compared to its predecessor.
I could go on about how Styx: Shards of Darkness’ tale is one of double-crossing, mild xenophobia, and uneasy alliances, but let’s face it: at its core, Shards of Darkness is all about presenting players with a glut of stealth gameplay. Sure, a more developed story would have been nice, but it’s no detriment to the engaging experience provided by the finely-tuned gameplay.
Each of the game’s nine multi-sectioned levels (10 if you count the prologue) begins with you infiltrating your way into a particular area to steal a specific artefact before you’re left to your own devices to do your best at escaping unnoticed and untainted. It’s a simple enough set-up that may sound somewhat repetitive, but I’m pleased to report that Styx: Shards of Darkness manages to remain feeling fresh thanks to the vast amount of varied level design and the multiple routes available to progress through them.
Much like in the previous game, Styx has a plethora of tools in his stealth-centric arsenal. From throwing sand into torches to keep your antics shrouded in darkness to the ability to project clones of yourself at nearby enemies as a distraction, Shards of Darkness makes a point of letting you be as creative as possible. Violence is always an option, but the very nature of the game places its emphasis on avoiding direct combat whenever necessary.
This overt emphasis on being swift, timely and pacifistic is made most evident through a series of three overarching optional challenges. In any mission, you can push a button to display your primary and secondary objectives alongside progress markers for three grades known as ‘Mercy’, ‘Swiftness’ and ‘Shadow’.
Unsurprisingly, Swiftness grades you on how long you’ve spent in each mission, rewarding you for being as quick as possible. The other two rankings, however, are somewhat at odds with this – a high ranking in ‘Mercy’ requires you to kill as few enemies as possible, and ‘Shadow’ requires you to avoid triggering any alarms. It’s often a balancing act; speed may mean being less stealthy, but being less stealthy may mean triggering more alarms. Achieve the highest rating possible in all three, and there’s plenty of bonus XP awaiting you.
Speaking of XP, Styx: Shards of Darkness drastically improves progression to your sneak-centric escapades by making use of a much more robust upgrade system than Master of Shadows implemented. Five pillars of skill allow you to craft a “loadout” that best suits your style of play, and it’s this high level of customisation that serves as yet another example of the game’s commitment to providing players with the most unique and creative experience as possible.
Outside the host of new systems comes a fair share of skills that will be familiar to anyone who has played the first game. Styx continues to hug walls as expected; amber vision makes identifying foes and objects of interest a breeze; and the constant breaking of the fourth wall returns in side-splittingly spectacular fashion. Despite all the aids at hand however, Styx: Shards of Darkness never fails to be a challenge with its sometimes unfair auto-save system and general circumstances of uncertainty. During my time with the game, it didn’t matter if I was traversing a series of sky ships or infiltrating a blood ceremony, Shards of Darkness tested my skill, and it will yours too.
With such a focus on repetition, you’d think that developer Cyanide would have done their best to iron out the excruciating loading times of the previous game, and while they are certainly cut down a little in Shards of Darkness, this kind of game is one that demands a Super Meat Boy level of respawn speed. Though not a make or break point by any means, the load times are irksome nonetheless, leaving you impatiently waiting to get back to the action.
Many times while playing Styx did I find myself thinking “I could’ve done that better,” or “I wonder what would’ve happened if I dropped that chandelier on that guard.” Whether it be the need to discover where an alternate route of an intricate level could take me or the craving to nail a perfect run, Styx: Shards of Darkness’ sheer unpredictability constantly pushed me to attempt levels multiple times – even if it did result in varying results of satisfaction. Any game that actively makes you want to replay is surely doing something right. What it may lack in narrative development, Styx: Shards of Darkness more than makes up for in its near-faultless gameplay that stands out as a prime example of stealth design done right.