Nothing beats lurking in the shadows and jumping out on unsuspecting victims. At least that’s probably the case if you’re a serial killer, a playful kitten or a two-hundred-year-old Goblin. You are Styx and you’re a thief with a huge knife and an urge to nick stuff – specifically, in this case, the heart of the Worldtree. Guarded by an alliance of men and Elves, this magic tree of Amber sits patiently waiting for you deep within the Tower of Akenash. Your job is to find it. Sounds easy, right?
Styx: Master of Shadows is a game of pure stealth. Navigate from point A to point B and under no circumstances get nabbed. Of course it would be a very dull game if point A to point B were an easy and linear task. Luckily each mission and each room, corridor and courtyard supplies numerous ways to cross through. Some sections are reasonably straightforward and will rely on observing and timing the guards’ patrol routes while other sections of the tower will seem, at first, to be absolutely impossible. Point A to point B will take a small detour via points C to Z. There was an achievement medal on one section for completing the mission in eighteen minutes. It took me an hour and fifty five minutes and I had to make up several more letters of the alphabet.
The Tower of Akenash is a very open environment. There will be an arrow with a distance meter to roughly guide you, but it really is your choice how you get to your goal. The most direct route is often the most difficult, while the roundabout routes are safer but much longer and will give you a constant lingering fear that you are heading in the wrong direction and systematically distinguishing all the tower’s medieval torches for nothing.
Much like the stealth games we all know and love, Master of Shadows’ enemies patrol set routes and display set behaviours. That’s fine with me. This is a difficult game, and I don’t need no brainbox AI surprising me from behind. I so often hear complaints about wooden NPCs but not every game needs an antagonist that randomly generates or remembers you or thinks to look up at the rafters. Know this: if the guards spot you, you’re done. Game over. Yes, you have a knife and yes you can parry and kill, but the combat system is unreliable and you’re unlikely to survive an attack from more than one guard. Did you ever play Thief? Remember the pointless combat in that game? Master of Shadows is the same. I would rather suffer a cut scene of Styx being thrown in jail every time I’m caught rather than wait for six guards to pull out their swords and turn me into a sliced loaf. The answer to this problem? Don’t get caught. You’re not supposed to be seen and you’re not supposed to challenge the guards. Much like Thief, the horrible combat gives you a damn good excuse to plan your movements carefully. A little yellow indicator will appear if the guards have an inkling you’re there. If it turns red, you’ll be back at your last save point quicker than you can say bollocks three times in a row.
So, due to the fact that there’s no “Fuck this, I’m going to run for it” option, you will need plenty of other ways to get to that coveted point B. Your squat but strangely cute Goblin can climb walls, jump gaps, sidle along rafters and hide in dark corners. You can crouch to move more quietly but to the detriment of your speed. Calculate carefully the time needed to get to that inviting sewer entrance or you really will be up shit creak. If you turn to murder in order to make your way through the mission, do try to be quiet and tidy about it. As well as your scampering backside, dead bodies will alert guards to your presence, so when you’ve offed someone, take care to stuff the corpse in a cupboard or dump it over the nearest wall. The guards will draw their swords if they find a body and proceed to check every nook, cranny, cupboard and Goblin-shaped shadow.
Poor Styx. He’s got a hard existence, but it is made easier with a few special abilities. Amber, originally taken from the Worldtree, can be found in small bottles around the tower. Drinking it will give Styx the power to make a decoy clone which can be used to send the guards off in the wrong direction. You can also turn invisible for a short amount of time, and you gain the power of Amber Vision, which is a sort of stealth vision that highlights enemy AIs and grappling points. Completing missions will earn you skill points which you can use to upgrade your abilities. The points are hard to come by so it’s worth taking time to think about how you intend to play the game. You might want to initially concentrate on upgrading your stealth abilities such as quieting your footsteps. Or maybe you’d like the choice to take out a few more guards with your Kill abilities so you might want to upgrade to aerial kills. Whatever you chose, you have the option to undo your choices and try a different tactic.
Styx: Master of Shadows is a game that doesn’t hold your hand. It doesn’t even hold a single fingertip or toe. It’s down to you to use your noggin and spatial awareness. Styx will fall off things. He will trip over buckets. He will leap through the air in a daring attempt to reach a ledge, land perfectly, and run straight off the other end and fall hundreds of feet to his death. He will die a lot. You need to be very careful. Styx might be wearing a hood but he’s far from the usual assassin’s creed. There’s no Leap of Faith. More like Slippage of Misjudgement. Add to this a control system that is sometimes unresponsive at the most crucial moments, you have a recipe for upside-down dead Goblin. This leads onto my only real complaint. The loading time for your save game feels quite slow. This wouldn’t be a problem if Styx could stay alive longer than my toaster takes to pop up a medium slice, but there are sections where I seemed to die every few seconds. Call me fussy but when I repeatedly plummet to my death I expect the game to reload with Elvish swiftness. Instantly, in other words, although it was nice to check Twitter between each death.
There I go being harsh and mean. Styx: Master of Shadows is a good game. The graphics are nice, if a little rough, and there are some entertaining touches. The muffled kills and lock-picking actions are fun and tense; running around with a dead body slung over your shoulder desperately trying to find a hiding place for you and the corpse never gets old; dissolving the body with acid is cuter than it should be; and poisoning the guards with your own vomit is disgustingly wonderful. It’s great stuff.
If you’re into stealth games and looking for something tough to gnaw on, this is the game for you. Although it does suffer from a few control problems, it is completely possible to work around them. The stealth aspects are spot on and the open environments give copious sneaking possibilities. Deviously dark and addictive, Styx: Master of Shadows will challenge you, infuriate you and stab you right in bread basket.
S J Hollis Rating 7.5/10