Platforms: PC, PS4 and Xbox One
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Cyanide Studio
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
I love those games that come out of nowhere and surprise you with just how good they actually are. Despite the fact that I enjoyed the first Styx game its sequel wasn’t exactly on my radar, so imagine how pleased I am to report that it’s a whole load of fun. It’s certainly the most surprising game I’ve played this year so far. It’s like getting an unexpected gift from a friend.
As the name suggests Shards of Darkness sees the return of Styx, the foul-mouthed, amber obsessed, occasionally fourth-wall-breaking goblin in all of his glory. This time he manages to get caught up in a plot involving a dangerous new weapon called Quartz and a plot hatched by the elves. The overarching story is nothing special and there are a staggering number of truly awkward dialogues coupled with horrible voice acting, but it’s Styx that makes everything worthwhile, his voice actor clearly enjoying the dark humor that the writers have imbued Styx with. This humor is most evident during game over screens where Styx comes walking out of the darkness to insult the player in a variety of ways, like politely suggesting that the jump button isn’t located in your ass. His fourth-wall-shattering mannerisms make him a sort of goblin Deadpool. It’s just a shame that the supporting cast are completely and utterly forgettable. And one could argue that while Styx is memorable and a lot of fun, he isn’t a deep character nor one that grows throughout the game.
The stealth itself doesn’t step far away from the traditional formula, following all the standard rules about line of sight, not moving too fast in order to keep quiet and carefully eying up patrols to find the gaps. Or, y’know, inserting a knife in someone’s back in order to create a gap. Still, there are a few tweaks here and there that keep you on your toes; heavily armored foes that can’t be killed with a knife nor picked up in order to hide their corpses for example, or dwarves whose sense of smell lets them detect you without a line of sight. There are some issues predicting those lines of sight and smelling radiuses, though, with a few instances where I certainly feel like I should have been seen and several where I was spotted when it didn’t seem feasible. Happily, these are relatively minor issues that don’t detract from how much fun it all is. Like before Styx is capable of clambering around the environment with relative ease and the level designers have clearly loved taking advantage of that fact, carving some truly great levels from chunks of code. They aren’t huge or even sprawling designs like we’ve seen in other games, but nonetheless there are plenty of routes to find. It’s just a shame that levels get reused a few times.
Some extra emphasis on exploration is given via secondary objectives that often revolve around stealing something cool or killing someone. The game doesn’t hold your hand too much during these, either, letting you search area by area for things you may need to complete the mission. It’s nice to not just follow a trail of markers.
Further reason to scour the numerous buildings is given by Styx’s ability to craft himself new items at benches, and with the right upgrade whenever he wants. There isn’t a huge selection of toys to play with but the ones that the game gives you all feel important, such as the acid trap that not only completely melts whoever steps into it but is also capable of taking out those pesky heavily armored guards. There are also throwing knives for long-range attacks and for detaching handy chandeliers, plus a few other things.
If you need a few extra tools in the toolbox then it’s time to turn toward the more supernatural of Styx’s skills. For starters he’s capable of turning invisible which is always handy for those moments when you really, really need to get the hell out of dodge in a hurry. His second skill, and easily the most disgusting, is being able to create a controllable clone of himself via the wonderful art of…er, puking.
These skills can be improved via a reasonably sizable upgrade tree that is split into stealth, killing, crafting, Styx’s ability to see important objects in the environment and his cloning. Want to make your clone a living smoke bomb? Can do. Or how about just a regular bomb? Can do that too. The invisibility power can also be tweaked so that anybody you grab becomes invisible as well, thus it becomes possible to murder a guard in plain sight. This may sound a little too powerful, but unlike a lot of other games the developers have taken care to balance everything out so that even with a pile of upgrades Styx remains extremely vulnerable, ensuring that the tension which keeps the stealth so satisfying never goes away. Even when you become capable of teleporting a brief distance to kill a target or reducing the noise you make the game remains rewardingly challenging, especially on higher difficulties where not only the ability to parry is removed but the guards become smarter, more aggressive and genuinely tricky to get around.
What I love is how Shards of Darkness is a step backward to a time where stealth games actually meant having to be stealthy, as opposed to modern game design where your assassin or thief also happens to be a one-man or one-woman assault squad capable of going toe-to-toe with a legion of foes. In Assassin’s Creed slipping up and getting into a fight just means it’s time to whip out a sword and slice some fools up, removing most of the tension, but in Shards of Darkness messing up is a dangerous thing. When it comes to a full-blown fight Styx can parry an incoming attack and then respond with a killing move, but it’s only effective against one or perhaps two enemies and he has no other offense to speak of. Anything more than a guard or two quickly overwhelms you, and Styx has a very small amount of health with the hardest difficulty reducing that so a single hit can take you out. In other words being spotted can be a death sentence unless you high-tail it out of there, and that means there’s a genuine sense of tension when sneaking through the wonderful levels.
What I do find a touch odd about the game is how it’s clearly a much more pure stealth game, yet one that provides a lot of options for killing that in turn lose you experience points for using them. You see, during each mission you’ll be granted bonus experience points for killing as few people as possible, being quick and setting off as few alarms as you can, all admirable goals. These points can then, of course, be spent, but quite a lot of them are based upon murdering folk; acid traps, acid vials for dissolving corpses, leaping out of cupboards to slice a throat and so on. Now, to be fair to the game there are a lot of upgrade choices which are not based upon killing and that offer more stealth orientated skills, but it still feels odd to unlock better ways of dealing with guards and then getting punished for using them.
Tarnishing the joy of exploring rooftops, stealing stuff and murdering unfortunate guards is the act of platforming which hasn’t gotten the attention it needed since the original game. It can feel a little too floaty and imprecise at times, with Styx failing to make a leap despite every indication that he should make it with ease. It’s never enough to stop you from enjoying the game, but it’s certainly enough to leave you feeling angry that such a core aspect of Shards isn’t as finely tuned as it needs to be.
Interestingly there’s a co-op mode tossed into the mix where a second player can take control of a clone of Styx. It’s a touch odd because the mode feels like it got added without much thought as there’s no real mechanics build specifically around having a partner, but using the existing gameplay it can be pretty enjoyable.
And finally before we wrap this all up let’s talk about the game’s overall presentation. I’ve already touched upon the fact that outside of Styx the voice acting is poor, but the music is surprisingly good, suiting the dark atmosphere and combining with it to create a somewhat Thief like vibe, except of course Shards of Darkness takes place in the Of Orcs and Men universe and therefore contains Elves, Dwarves and more. The rest of the audio is solid with the sounds of guards patrolling and chatting being clear enough to give you a good idea of their location, although sometimes I noted footsteps. In terms of the graphics it can be a rather nice looking game at times, although not on par with most triple-A titles. Animations can seem a little wonky and the textures aren’t great, but the world does feel lived in and cohesive. All in all very solid presentation.
A truly pleasing surprise, Styx: Shards of Darkness managed to hold my attention from start to finish, and I believe that if you are a stealth fan who doesn’t appreciate being able to wade through a pile of bodies rather than actually sneaking through the level then you’ll be hooked, too. It has its fair share of problems with that sometimes iffy platforming and the poor voice acting outside of Styx, but those problems don’t overshadow just how much fun it is.