Back in 2014, a thief stalked through the shadows, blade drawn and eyes blazing with thoughts of riches, treasure and amber. Styx: Master of Shadows was a third person pure stealth experience and now it’s back not only with more back-stabbing and night stalking, but with improved controls and many more shadows to poke around in.
The first game was never an easy experience. When we say pure stealth we really do mean exactly that. You got caught and you were pretty much goblin paste. Shards of Darkness creeps along the same dark footsteps. There’s no hide, scuttle, stalk, get caught … FIGHT. It’s hide, scuttle, stalk, get caught … DIE. So don’t get caught. This huge reliance on stealth means that you have to play the way the game wants you to play. Yes, you might be able to outrun the occasional cock up, but in general you are going to have to do things the hard and slow way, and oh boy that is a lot of fun.
Each mission is broken down into stages and each stage contains a separate goal. Generally you are plonked down into an open area and you’ll need to make your way to various places to retrieve items, find people and, of course, escape. How you achieve all this is up to you. There are countless ways to achieve your goals, some high risk, some lower, but all need careful consideration and watchfulness. This openness is where Styx shines (metaphorically; a glow in the dark Styx would be very bad for his survival rate). When you activate your Amber Vision, any helpful items will glow gold. You’ll find ropes and handholds to scale and barrels to hide in. Getting from A to B will often involve not just climbing around a room or over one, but also taking out guards. You can hide in a cupboard, leap out and murder someone in a brazen fashion, or you can activate your Amber Vision and find some food to poison (by chucking up on it!) or an alarm bell to booby trap. There are lots of options. Even deciding if you’ve got enough time to hide a body needs thinking about when other guards are closing in on you.
Some rooms need very careful planning and there is a lot of trial and error. Very rarely is anything simple and that’s the beauty of this game. It’s a genuinely tough challenge. The original game had a few issues with clumsy controls, but that’s been sorted out for Styx’s return. While swinging on a rope can still be a little precarious, climbing, perching and balancing feels much safer and control-related slip-ups are rare. You’ll probably still die rather a lot, but it won’t be from Styx having two left feet. There are a variety of difficulty settings choose from, but beware because even the easiest setting is pretty challenging. Helping you along your way, however, is a neat quick-save function. In addition to manual save slots and providing you are not in an Alert status, you can press the right D-pad button at any time to instantly save your progress. It’s a function that quickly becomes essential and takes the sting out of your many deaths. Checkpoints and hunting down save points can be a frustrating part of many games so Styx’s anytime-quick-save function deserves a hefty pat on the back and a box of Jelly Babies to the developers to say thank you.
Completing missions and collecting odds, sods and optional bobs will earn you points that you can redeem between missions. There are a multitude of upgrade options to choose from depending on how you want play the game. It’s worth noting at this point that the combat element is just as ineffective as the previous game. As we said earlier, get caught and prepare to die. There is an upgrade option that, if you’re playing on one of the first two difficulty options, will improve your parry to make fighting back a little bit easier. Even with the upgrade you’ll still need expert timing, and taking on more than one guard is pretty much risking suicide, but it’s still worth having. Other options allow you to improve your stealth and amber capabilities including how much noise you make, your invisibility powers, your clones and Amber Vision. Upgrade points are hard-earned so spend wisely.
One complaint we had with the previous game at release was the unacceptable loading times between deaths. Well we were chuffed to a thousand goblin bits to discover a massive improvement. Not only is there hardly any wait time at all, but foul-mouthed Styx himself makes a cameo to insult you for your repeated stupidity. Throw yourselves off as many roofs as you like. You’ll be back to hide in your next shadow in no time at all.
Styx: Shards of Darkness isn’t a particularly cheap game, but in our opinion, if you like stealth games, it’s worth every penny. It’s not a game that can be rushed, so you’re going to be hiding in barrels and vomiting on bread rolls for a good long time. The graphics look really nice and again are an improvement on the original (although it has to be said, the original looked good anyway). Although it’s supposed to be a dark game, it’s still colourful to just the right degree. I’m a big fan of the music, also. It’s got a good tension that fits nicely with the gameplay.
A great improvement on the original game, Styx: Shards of Darkness is an impressive pure stealth sneak-fest. Even with upgrades, combat is too weak to rely upon. Sticking to the shadows and dropping chandeliers Only Fools and Horses style is the only way to play. It’s a tough challenge even on the easiest setting, and one that will keep you hiding in barrels and lurking under tables until the early hours.
S J Hollis Rating – 8/10
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