Release: March 14, 2017
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
The stealth genre has been in a pretty bad way for the last several years. Venerated franchises have been dumbed down to appeal to a casual audience, AAA “stealth” games are woefully light on stealth, and “spiritual successors” to vaunted, but dormant franchises have been, to say the least, lacking in quality. Enter: Styx – Master of Shadows, a flawed, yet eminently playable hardcore stealth game from Cyanide Studios and Focus Home Interactive. And when I say flawed, there were some pretty big ones. In addition to noticeable frame rate drops at very inopportune times, the controls had a tendency to get pretty wonky, especially when scaling walls, the parrying system was clunky and unresponsive, and enemy A.I. and pathfinding was spotty. However, it represented something that had been sorely lacking in the stealth genre since Ubisoft shat out Splinter Cell: Jack Bauer Edition on the world; the return of the slow, methodical gameplay that defined classic series like Thief, Hitman, and Tenchu.
Styx: Shards of Darkness improves upon its predecessor in every conceivable way. The most noticeable improvement is in the controls. Everything from basic traversal to parrying is much more fluid now. The improved controls are especially noticeable during the more vertical gameplay sections, where I find myself spending much less time mucking about with the left analog stick to get the proper angle for jumps. Of course, with the ability to swing from ropes being added in this entry, the improved controls were a necessity. Graphically, Master of Shadows wasn’t the ugliest game, but it was heavily dated. The age of its engine became abundantly clear during the in engine cut scenes, when the camera would move in really tight. Characters, especially the human characters, had jagged faces that looked something like the carved head of a marionette, and all the facial expressiveness of a ventriloquist’s dummy. Rendering fire also seemed to cause the Unreal 3 engine quite a bit of discomfort, as did falling water. With the upgrade to Unreal Engine 4 for this entry, that is a situation that seems to have been mostly rectified. Everything just looks better and much crisper this time around. There’s also a bit of an equipment system this time around. Throughout the game, Styx can procure a small selection of outfits and daggers. Each offers some type of bonus, but also a drawback of some kind.
My biggest sticking point with Shards of Darkness is the inclusion of two trite modern gaming tropes: crafting and unlockable skills. Master of Shadows is not an RPG. I am not building a character to fulfill a certain role in a dynamic story. I’m playing a goblin who is a master thief, his skills should be top notch from the start. The only thing that should cause them to improve is my improving at playing the game. The inclusion of crafting in many a modern game strikes me as stupid, doubly so in this game. I understand that they wanted to put non-reusable lock picks in the game, but the idea stopping off at a random workbench just placed at some arbitrary location in a level to make lock picks strikes me as stupid. This would have been better handled through some sort of loadout screen before levels.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also complain about the combat. Yes, it’s a stealth game. Yes, your character should be fragile so as to disincentivize running in head first. However, the lack of any and all offensive capability is incredibly stupid. This isn’t a problem unique to the Styx series, however. It is a problem with many small market hardcore stealth games. Garret, Agent 47, and Sam Fisher, even in the entries in their respective series that were properly focused on sneaking, could still blast their way out of trouble within reason. In any prospective third entry in this series, there needs to be at least some small measure of offensive capability given to the main character.
Styx: Shards of Darkness is far from perfect. Like its predecessor, it is a flawed, yet enjoyable stealth game, although its flaws are far less numerous than its predecessor. Make no mistake, this is not a modern stealth game in the sense of something like Hitman: Absolution or Splinter Cell: Conviction where you can just say screw sneaking and play it as boneheaded action game. It is a modern stealth game in the sense that it is a modern game that calls to mind the good old days when the industry was less cynical and didn’t insist on insulting the intelligence of players at every turn.