Review: Styx-Master of Shadows

Styx Master of Shadows is an interesting little stealth title. While not developed by a AAA studio, the quality behind it is really quite impressive. Part Thief and Dishonored, Styx manages to retain its own sense of identity in the wake of its story and gameplay mechanics.
Review: Styx-Master of Shadows
Date published: Feb 14, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Styx - Master of Shadows is a stealth action game developed by Cyanide Studios and published by Focus Home Interactive.  You play as Styx, a goblin who wakes up in his hideout stricken with amnesia. He can't remember who or what he is, all he knows is there is a severe pounding in his skull, and the compulsion to reach something called "The World tree".

The game takes place in the fictional world of Akenash, a world within the addictive grasp of an illicit substance called Amber. It is illegal to ingest this substance due to a treaty between the Elves and the Humans. These two species have an uneasy relationship, in a state of perpetually trying to undermine each other, and look for a reason to go to war. Styx doesn't know why he wants to visit The World Tree, and he feels as though he is being guided to the great plant. The World Tree is also the source of all Amber, which the Elves use—their bodies suffused with it in order to communicate via telepathy.

The story starts off as slightly confusing and dumps you right in the thick of nowhere. Rest assured though, all questions are answered and the pacing of the game is really satisfying. Well written and well produced, the quality of Styx is a joy to behold. Anyone who plays this game will not be dissatisfied with how the story carefully and measurably unfolds. The really nice thing about Styx was that the plot was in no way predictable. The story keeps you guessing and constantly on your toes, wanting to learn what will happen next. It is also a prequel to the action RPG, "Of Orcs and Men".

The mechanics of Styx are familiar,
but the game makes those tools its own

The game play borrows rather heavily from the Thief series, with usable items like healing potions, throwing daggers and various other tricks available in Styx's Arsenal. While it borrows various ideas from the quintessential stealth game, Styx manages to expand on these concepts to great effect. Similar to the water arrows from Thief, Styx can use his spit and some sand in order to throw it at a torch, dousing the flame. As well as the throwing daggers, he has health potions and Amber. The Amber is a unique mechanic that really helps open the game up. Using Amber, Styx can vomit up a clone of himself. He can then take over his clone, controlling him and using it to open hard to reach switches. You can distract your enemies using the clone, to no detriment to Styx apart from the Amber lost to make the clone. Later on, depending on what skills you level, the clone can turn invisible for roughly 5-6 seconds. They can also bind and distract an enemy, as well as lie in chests, and closets in ambush.

Styx himself can also turn invisible through the use of Amber, camouflaging himself for a limited time. You can however later upgrade the skill so that it only wears off as you move or execute an enemy. As well as these abilities, he has access to Amber Vision. This allows him to see special items and enemies scattered around the map, as well as helps guide the player on their mission somewhat.

Styx's available skills are pretty varied, ranging between stealth, agility, combat, the clone abilities and equipment carry space, as well as the final skill tree that doesn't unlock until you get close to endgame. In order to level up your skills, there are objectives scattered throughout the levels. You can complete the secondary and main missions, as well as grabbing all the collectibles, killing any enemies (or not alerting said enemies), and collecting special relics hidden in the world. Depending on how many of these challenges and objectives you complete, you will receive more skill points to spend.

Styx can climb, jump and hide.  He bears a very cool looking tattoo on his right shoulder that glows in the dark. When in pitch black, the Amber in his body reacts with the tattoo and glows, letting you know you can't be seen. This mechanic is another idea borrowed from the Thief series, and is akin to the light gem—albeit somewhat more primitive; there's no gradients like in Thief, only being hidden or sticking out like a sore thumb.

The combat is clunky, probably intentionally so

Combat in Styx is a little clunky, though. If you're spotted, you will have to defend yourself by timing and parrying an enemies attacks a few times before killing them. This can only be done against certain enemies, mainly the human ones at the beginning of the game. As you progress, you will experience a steady progression of enemies getting more complex to take out. By the end of the game, you will need to use the aerial kill, balcony kill and your throwing daggers in order to take down some really dangerous enemies. The game provides handy hints on how to take out specific enemies within the loading screens and they pop up frequently enough that you won't be stuck for long without one.

As well as combat, there are stealth kills. When you sneak up behind an enemy, unless they're armored, you can choose to do either a quick kill or a quiet muffled kill. While the quiet muffled kill will prevent enemies nearby hearing the blood curdling screams, it also takes a substantial amount more time to perform, often not giving you enough time to take an enemy out and hide the body in order to prevent its discovery. It takes timing and a lot of trial and error to get used to having enough time to kill and hide the body. One saving grace in this is the quicksave. Apart from rare story related sections, you can always save your game at any time however it's a double edged sword. If you save at an inopportune time, you can get stuck in an infinite death loop, so it pays to use it tactically.

Bland environment art doesn't do too much
to dull the lustre of a fairly open-ended level design

Graphically the game looks similar to Of Orcs and Men, despite using Unreal Engine 3. While the detail on the engine looks great, the actual environments in game are a tad bland. You will trudge through sewers, castles, courtyards, mines, shipping yards and docks on your quest to find out who you are. The environments aren't all that varied and the colours of the game are pretty dark and dull, however the use of light and shade works to great effect in game, and you will constantly be overcome by an atmosphere of fear. The fear of going out in the open will seep into you and you'll come to view the shadows as a close friend, completely immersed and often flinching as you step into the light.

While the maps are nothing special, they are filled with secret passages and many different non-linear paths for the player to progress through. The maps are huge, and you can often get quite lost while looking to complete secondary objectives. Fans of the genre who disliked Thief 2014 will find plenty of things to praise in the masterful level design. The different paths Styx can use to traverse levels are very varied and never feel like a retread.

The animation quality, does dull otherwise
fairly decently done and artistic art design, however

The story is told through cutscenes of painted, detailed graphic art. These scenes are really beautiful looking and have the look and feel of an oil painting. The scenes are made up of several textures and the story is rarely told via the in game engine. While the engine is really detailed, and the models look great, you will occasionally find the animations quite jarring. Whether it's Styx running his finger along his blade, or a guard handing a set of keys to another guard, it doesn't look quite right. Items clip through shoulders and hands and the collision meshes come off as slightly tacky.

Sound and voice acting both are particularly well-done

The sound design suits the game just fine. there isn't much music apart from ambience, and occasionally during an important cutscene. The sound effects for all the different varied enemies sound correct and nothing feels out of place. Often the sound will save you, sneaking around, somewhat lost you will overhear a guard's nearby conversation and immediately know where they are in relation to your vicinity.

While the voice actors aren't well known, they do a good job. Styx and the various characters sound how you feel they should sound. The emotion within the voice acting is believable and you start to feel sorry for Styx as he struggles with his inner turmoil and reconciling with who he is. The actors help push the story along competently and one or two of the characters are very likable, including Styx himself in a gruff, tough endearing way.

Ultimately Styx is a worthwhile game for anyone who is a fan of the stealth genre. While at times the map size can be quite daunting, the game is a lot of fun. This is a game for anyone who found the recent 2014 Thief offering a bit lacking. While the animations are a tad clunky and the only boss battle in the game is rather annoying and filled with trial and error, there is a lot to like about Styx - Master Of Shadows. The game is primarily stealth. You can brute force yourself through the first half of the game via combat but eventually that tactic will fail you and you will be forced to rely on stealth. the enemy AI is fairly competent and you will often find yourself caught in unpleasant situations, but that's half the fun. Definitely worth a look!

The Final Word: Recommended - Styx - Master of Shadows is an interesting little stealth title. While not developed by a AAA studio, the quality behind is really quite impressive. Part Thief and Dishonored, Styx manages to retain its own sense of identity in the wake of its story and gameplay mechanics.