While many others have been enjoying open world antics this March, my games of choice have been a bit more incognito. I first indulged in the over the top gunplay of Sniper Elite 4, and I've followed that up with the more subdued stealth of Styx: Shards of Darkness. The third game taking place in the Of Orcs and Men universe, Shards of Darkness is an infiltration game that sees the titular goblin sneaking his way through several fantasy cities and encountering all manner of elves, dwarves, and gold pieces. This sequel has greatly expanded its scope when compared to 2014's Master of Shadows, and that comes with all the pitfalls you'd expect from a smaller game that is shooting for the stars. Even so, Styx has a lot of admirable traits, and the ambition of Cyanide Studio often shines through the overwhelming darkness.
After a few aimless levels, the campaign of Styx: Shards of Darkness eventually weaves an uneven tale of political intrigue between elves and dwarves that has little to do with its main character. In that sense, the storytelling struck the right balance, because Styx and I both seemed to share a disinterest in the religious cults and conspiracies we were unraveling. Instead, I was listening to overwrought dialogue for hints at objectives and then attempting to make as little noise as possible getting to my destination. This is easier said than done, as the stealth gameplay is front and center above all else and clearly had the focus of the development put into it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I sometimes wished for something a bit more substantial to latch onto narratively beyond Styx's sardonic wit and his opposition's mustache twirling hatred of all greenskins.
Speaking of, Styx's entire character is a huge throwback to the gaming protagonists of my youth, but I'm not sure I enjoyed the nostalgia. He quips about "For Dummies" books, references Terminator 2, and hits just about every other mark you can think of when it comes to Duke Nukem-esque heroes. As someone who likes Duke Nukem-esque heroes, I must admit that the juxtaposition of a quipping badass attitude matched with a weakling rogue was amusing at first. However, Styx rubbed me the wrong way when he started pointing out flaws in the game design for a laugh a-la Matt Hazard. This style of gag never really lands, as players still have to deal with the design flaws that are being joked about, and the game is put in a position of mocking its players. That combined with a design that leans heavily into trial and error makes for a bad combination that will put off players rather than draw them in.
Of course, trial and error is a hallmark of stealth games, especially the classic games that Styx draws from. Almost every mission will see you perched on a rooftop or hanging from a ledge waiting for the right timing to sneak between two guards. When it's firing on all cylinders, Styx's stealth is refined and smooth, and this is where the game is at its most enjoyable. I had a blast worming my way into crowds of guards to grab a mcguffin before diving out a window and grabbing a ledge below at the last second. Unfortunately, the game seems unable to settle on just its main mechanics and throws players into a gauntlet of missions involving avoiding detection entirely, navigating puzzle rooms, and fighting huge monsters. These stabs at variety miss the mark more often than not, becoming a chore to get through whenever they pop up. This is especially true for players like myself who aren't reliably able to execute a perfect run on a level. I'd rather mix it up a bit and cause chaos, but Shards of Darkness feels too restrictive to allow anything close to that on a regular basis.
While the developers make a stab at presenting open areas with differing objectives, the gameplay is not suited for that style. There are plenty of different paths to take to your goal, but everything still played out in a linear fashion, and I found myself trying to guess what the designers wanted me to do more often than not. The numerous magical abilities and craftable items at your disposal suggest a bunch of tools to play around with, but all these toys only really seem useful in the specific moments where they're needed, and you really have to rely on your regular skulking for the majority of the experience. In addition, the game's areas are all reused multiple times with remixed enemies and objectives. This lead to me running into boxed off areas that served as spawn points in a previous or future iteration of the level, but served no purpose in the version I was currently playing. Instead of helping the game feel more open, the large areas actually hurt the game's pacing and give players plenty of opportunities to get lost.
I probably don't have to say this, but Styx: Shards of Darkness is a wonderful looking game, taking full advantage of the wonders of Unreal Engine 4. Everything from the goblin himself to the various cloned enemies you
murder sneak past are well defined, and I was impressed by the cloth physics on Styx's attire as I jumped from ledge to ledge. You get some jerky animations from time to time, but everything else comes together in the visuals department. The presentation shows its constraints when you get around to the voice acting, which is subpar at best. Styx has an appropriate snarl to his quips, and the main cast is serviceable, but every unnamed character sounds hilariously out of place in a fantasy setting. In addition, while they do have several voices for each type of character, they all have the same script, so it's not uncommon to hear a passing train of dwarves talking to themselves about identical late nights spent drinking.
By the end of Styx: Shards of Darkness, I was more than ready to say goodbye to the world of amber and quartz. If you're looking for an old-school stealth experience, then this game will fit the bill, but I have a feeling that most players seeking that might realize why we left those concepts behind. Instead of restricting players and forcing them to perform feats of stealth just the way the developers intended, modern stealth games give players a sandbox of opportunities and then watch the fireworks go off. Despite what Styx says in one of his quips, no one is going to be getting revenue from a "Best Goblin Deaths" video, because most players will have the same basic experience with the game. When Styx's stealth is allowed to breathe, it's exactly what you want out of this type of game, and that's why it's all the more disappointing that it was shoehorned into levels that scream for more modern design decisions. The end result is a jumble that will slink off into the night soon after the end credits roll, leaving nary an impression on those who play it.
Styx: Shards of Darkness will provide stealth fans with a brief thrill, but wading through levels multiple times and dealing with poor attempts at variety will grate at even the most jaded of players by the time the campaign is through.
- Excellent Stealth Gameplay
- Gorgeous Visuals
- Restrictive Objectives
- Lame Quips
- Discordant Design
- Laughable Voice Acting