Back in 2014, Cyanide Studios reinvigorated the stealth genre with the release of Styx: Master of Shadows. It wasn’t perfect, but it definitely had its merits and gave fans of the classic “hard-as-balls” stealth genre hope for the future. Now, three years later comes Styx: Shards of Darkness, a standalone sequel to Master of Shadows that turns the difficulty up to eleven.
The reason I call Shards of Darkness a standalone sequel is that the game really doesn’t require you to have any experience with the previous game which is great considering I’ve pretty much forgotten the entire plot of the last game. It helps in terms of being familiar with the mechanics, but the game’s prologue mission gives you a quick 101 anyway. The real difference between Styx: Shards of Darkness and Master of Shadows is that players have full freedom to silently traverse the world and use Styx’ abilities however they please, as well as a more in-depth Skills tree, and the ability to craft items to be used during missions.
Before, Master of Shadows focused on verticality, with Styx climbing higher up this bustling tower dwelling, Shards of Darkness on the other hand is much broader and feels a lot larger in size. Each mission area is filled with brightly lit rooms, dim corridors, dark corners, and little nooks in which you can get a little rest away from the action. The level creation has definitely been well thought-out and is a pleasure to explore. Not to mention that each environment is absolutely stunning and feels unique in its own way.
With this new-found freedom, however, comes the added difficulty of being alert at all times and being constantly aware of your surroundings, because you might just turn a corner and end up being face to face with a blade, and conflict is really something you want to avoid. In Master of Shadows, enemies were almost predictable in their actions, you could flee easily enough, and though combat was awkward, it was an option if you really had no other choice.
This time around, trying to parry your way out of a fight is all but impossible thanks to putting combat within a new skill tree which players can upgrade using Skill Points earned during each mission. These Skill Points can be earned a number of ways but the majority of them come from four goals, Swiftness (how fast you complete the level), Shadow (how many times you’ve been spotted), Mercy (whether you complete the level without killing anyone), and Thief (how many hidden medals you’ve managed to find). Getting gold on all of these goals will give you maximum skill points at the end of each mission, allowing you to upgrade Styx skills much quicker.
The Skill tree, aside from combat, also lets you upgrade other aspects of Styx’ skills, from making his abilities use less Amber, increasing his crafting knowledge, to making his footsteps quieter. This of course makes later levels a lot easier, however getting maximum skill points can make things a hell of a lot more difficult.
Styx: Shadow of Darkness’ plot is a fairly interesting one however I found it difficult to really get engrossed in the story. As Styx, you’re used to being alone as no one really likes your kind. Goblins are generally considered pests, but Styx is a bit different thanks to his thirst for Amber which has given him not only the power to speak, but also transform and use Amber to get one-over on his enemies. In Shadow of Darkness a group of Goblin Hunters called C.A.R.N.A.G.E. corner Styx, and ultimately strike a deal with the fourth-wall breaking thief offering all the Amber he could dream of in return for a sceptre.
As you’d expect things don’t go quite as well as planned, so along with C.A.R.N.A.G.E., Styx wants revenge bringing him deep into the depths of elf territory (and beyond) to get the vengeance he craves as well as the four-poster bed, apartment, and everything else he’s requesting from the Goblin Hunting group in return for the information they’re after.
Players of Master of Shadows will likely remember how incredibly fourth-wall breaking and foul-mouthed Styx really is, and this time it’s no different, however they’ve now added in cut-scenes each time you die with Styx criticising your gameplay, which at first were funny, but due to the relentless nature of the game, got tiresome quickly. I’m all up for humour being injected into the more serious video games, but this was a little too much, and made Styx’s already unlikable personality, almost unbearable.
While Styx may be used to being a solitary creature, in Shards of Darkness I felt incredibly alone. Not only are you a generally disliked creature, the game itself refuses to hold your hand leaving you truly solemn to figure out how to get from A to B. This is likely why Cyanide decided to add more focus on the game’s co-operative play as two heads are certainly better than one. This co-operative play allows you to play every aspect of the game with a friend in a handy hop-in and -out mode making tackling those more complicated levels much easier.
Speaking of easy, in Master of Shadows players were required to make use of Styx’ skills during play, in Shards of Darkness that’s not necessary. In fact you can play through the entire game without needing to use them, however this makes things incredibly difficult. One thing I’d suggest is to upgrade both Styx’ transformation skills and alchemy skills as quickly as possible as they’ll make your life a hell of a lot easier.
That being said, I didn’t really find a groove with Styx’ abilities until much later into the game, so perhaps a little hint every now and again would have been ideal.
One thing that struck me with Master of Shadows was how enjoyable the gameplay was. While it was challenging, there was always little moments of celebration throughout, especially when you surpassed a difficult area. In Shards of Darkness however, I felt less celebration and more relief when I’d finally reached the end of the mission. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the game, but at times I personally felt a little overwhelmed with the sheer openness of the environments. I felt that the game could benefit from having a slightly more linear path than what’s available at times.
I’ll be honest, I was looking forward to Styx: Shards of Darkness, but after over 30 hours playing the game, I want some of that time back. Not to say I disliked the game, but it felt much more punishing than the first game in the series. I found myself looking forward to the mission ending rather than actually finding out where the story will take me.
Styx: Shards of Darkness presents an interesting evolution of the franchise. While in some respects the previous game felt a little limiting, it seems the new open-world focus has taken things a little too far. This “choose-your-own-path” gameplay is definitely a more freeing way to play the game, but also forcing you to craft your own items using ingredients around the environment gives you way too much to think about and pay attention to.