Styx: Shards of Darkness: What if: Thief but fantasy?
Updated: Aug 20
Styx and Of Orcs and Men as a series has passed me by until now, I was aware of it and have seen it in stores but it never really interested me enough to play it until it was pitched to me as a sort of Thief game but with a fantasy world setting (you know the kind; Elves, Dwarfs and Humans in a middle ages high fantasy backdrop) the prospect intrigued me as I have really enjoyed Thief 3 in the past and other stealth based games as well. It is also by Cyanide studios, the same devs who have worked on Of Orcs and Men, Styx: Master of Shadows and the upcoming Call of Cthulhu: The official video game, a title that I have personally been looking forward to. So is Styx: Shards of Darkness a good game? Let’s find out...
Styx is your ordinary, loveable anti-hero, stealing from the rich and keeping it for himself, while cracking some witty forth wall shattering jokes. Most importantly he is totally unsympathetic towards the blight of those around him and only ever gets involved in the political intrigue of the day because of personal gain. If this sounds anything like a certain protagonist from a certain influential series then you would not be entirely wrong as Styx is very much a more comedic Garrett who often talks to the directly to the viewer about the absurdity of the current situation or whatever terrible pain you have inflected on Styx, if you wanted to or not. Overall the writing is okay for a majority of the game, it is compelling while it is there and is not entirely predictable but ultimately unmemorable unlike Thief which had better world building, characters and dialogue. Styx Shards of Darkness does try to build an interesting living world and sometimes it gets close to differencing itself from the Tolkien standard but it falls short of being truly compelling, the bugs and glitches do not help with immersing the player in the story but we will get to that later. Where the writing really falls short is in the final 2 loading screen text updates which I will quote now “Do the Dwarfs already have started their offense?” and “It is also time for Styx to leave this city that is on the verge of war.” The grammar declines in quality seemingly out of nowhere and it is very distracting and somewhat laughable. The ending itself is suitably climatic (if poorly designed but we will get to that later) but the game itself just stops rather abruptly after the final boss. It was neither a cliff-hanger nor a finished conclusion to 20 hours worth of content. I do suspect that either the budget was running out or time to release was drawing closer then desired because it is really jarring.
The gameplay itself is classic stealth, you have to sneak your way through expansive levels to complete objectives, there is no shop so you have to savage for resources and items from each of the nine levels that make up Shards of Darkness, there is an focus on platforming here with different routes to take when travelling over the levels looking for secrets and collectables that all benefit the game in some way or another. The stealth itself is very well done in that you can escape your pursuers if you get spotted and the game gives you multiple ways to know where the patrolling guards are and how to get past them. Not every single person in the map instantly knows your exact position and if you use the terrain to your avenge you can escape them and the maps offer a lot of hiding places. The AI is very smart and will actively look for you in the nearby area forcing the player to think on the fly and study the level to remember the possible best places to hide. In short the stealth ticks all the right boxes of exploration and design.
However the more I played the more cracks in the game’s design started to appear. Starting first with the ‘combat’ the game might suggest there is combat but it is not, more of a quick time event, if you get caught and have nowhere to run enemies will murder you in two hits, you can parry whenever a button appears and that is it. You cannot hope to kill anyone unless you backstab them. This can make any option to get out of a tight spot with fighting like in Thief completely mute you might as well load a save as there are times when you cannot hope to escape or hide. It does not help that the parry function is far too unforgiving in terms of a time window (even then I swear it does not register the hits the button prompts sometimes) another problem arises with how skill points are rewarded. At the start of each mission you have four reward tiers, first one demands you to complete the mission within a set time limit, the second a set amount of people you kill throughout the mission, the third asks you to not trigger alarms and the forth reward tier asks you to find a number of collectables found in each mission. Let me ask you this dear readers, how does it make any sense for a stealth game, a genre where careful thought, planning and observation are key to success to have a time feature that punishes you with losing experience points for planning your route and exploring. Hell even the forth tier tells us to look through the massive levels to find collectables at the expense more experience points. Maybe on the second playthrough when you know the map layout and AI movements and placements but not when the player is learning how to get from point A to point B without getting spotted or triggering alarms because there is no combat, while getting punished for not getting from A to B fast enough. It is a strange and stupid bit of design that clashes with the game’s central stealth mechanic all the time.
Now about that final boss....
There are only two bosses in this game, just as well as Stealth games do not encourage bosses as a whole, the first one is not bad, it does involved mostly platforming and little stealth but it works fine and is harmless as a whole. The final boss fight however involves you reaching a certain place to deliver the killing blow, all the while the thing is tossing instant death AOE everywhere you go, there is very little margin for error and you cannot make your own saves, it is only check point based and if you happen to die (and you will) you have to go through two loading screens and a cut scene. While the boss does improve after the first checkpoint it is amazing at how terribly lazy the boss is designed before that check point. No boss should ever have AOE instant death attacks ever.
The graphics are very good, it looks on par if not better than most AAA products, the lighting and surroundings are superb to look at. The art style itself is just high fantasy classic with a little bit of steam punk thrown in for good measure, it looks fine really and that is about it.
Majority of my time spent on Styx has been marked by mostly stable performance, FPS was at a consistent 60 and no screen tearing was found. However the lib syncing is quite bad, mouths do not so much create words as they do move up and down like dustbin lids, it is a little distracting seeing listening to some really good voice acting not syncing up with the character’s mouths on screen. Then there are minor bugs like hands and feet sinking into the terrain or some character models not moving when speaking. Then there are other more serious ones like character models getting stuck in the terrain or they will glitch out with strange movements, sometimes they would just not see me even after I walk right under their nose. Sometimes the sound just cuts out if you move to the side of the character speaking. Nothing really game breaking per say but it shows a deep lack of play testing before release, the game itself suffers badly when some elf guard’s animation just stops working and she slides gracefully in stock loading pose towards the water fountain.
Styx is a flawed game that needed a few months polish before getting sent out into the world, a game that could have been great is only good. A fun game that should have been scrubbed of some of the messiness, I would recommend it as an alternative to Thief.