Styx: Master of Shadows is a surprisingly good stealth game from Cyanide Studio. It captures the same feel as some of the best stealth games out there, and while it may not be groundbreaking, it does have a few tricks up its sleeve that make it a valuable addition to the stealth genre.
The game is a prequel to Of Orcs and Men. You play Styx, a 200-year-old and oddly unique goblin out to discover the true history of your origin. You’re the goblin master assassin, and you’re mission in the game is to infiltrate the Tower of Akenash—basically a really huge tower city that stretches high into the sky—in order to steal the heart of the World Tree which produces a valuable (and apparently addicting) magical substance.
The overall feel of Styx is kind of what you’d get if you took the atmosphere from Thief, the environment interactions from Assassin’s Creed, and the level concepts from Dishonored and filled it with characters from World of Warcraft who behave like they’re in Game of Thrones.
But don’t let these similarities fool you. Styx is a unique and very well designed game. You’re a small goblin that can scurry under desks, dash through tunnels, and hop around the rafters above your enemies. It’s unlikely you’ll last long in combat, which forces you to stay true to the stealth approach, and the level design works wonderfully with the gameplay.
Like most stealth games, darkness is your friend in Styx, but unlike many stealth games the game isn’t filled with completely black shadows you can disappear into. Enemies can usually see you even when you’re in the shadows, which brings an interesting and welcome change—you’ll need to rely on actually hiding. That is hiding behind or hiding under stuff, or climbing onto high areas where enemies can’t see you.
As you explore your environments, you’ll also need to watch your step. Items can be knocked over, jumping down onto hard surfaces makes noise, and catching the attention of a nearby enemy will more often than not send you scurrying towards the nearest hiding spot.
The levels are very large, and you’ll have plenty of options on how to reach your objectives. There are hidden items, optional objectives, and enough diversity in each mission to make you try different approaches when one way feels too difficult. There were a few times when I was stuck on different parts, dying repeatedly, when I realized I could just take another road across. Many of the alternate routes are not immediately noticeable, which makes you feel like you’ve really accomplished something when you find a good route.
Some areas of certain levels are also filled with NPCs, often in large groups. This makes the world feel very much alive, and it also means you’ll often need to look for other ways around. The focus on stealth and rapid punishment for being caught makes you really think differently about your surroundings—you’ll always look ahead at a new area, try to spot ways around enemies, time things well—this all makes you better explore your environment.
The combat mechanics in Styx can be fun. When you engage an enemy, you’ll need to use careful timing to parry their attacks, and after parrying a set number of times, you’ll get an option to get a kill strike. The combat works fairly well, but really only when you’re facing a single enemy, which isn’t that often. If you’re playing for combat, you’re probably going to die a whole lot in Styx, and it’s often not feasible when facing more than one enemy since they’ll be tossing blades at you the whole time.
Styx has four difficulties, three of which are more general, but the fourth of which is “Goblin Mode” that mostly removes the whole combat system. Goblin Mode is for hardcore stealth fans, and in my opinion actually works a lot better with the design of Styx. If you get seen, you’ll have a very small window of time to escape before the enemy catches you, stabs you, and stomps your head in.
But direct combat aside, you have several tools and abilities at your disposal. You can of course make silent kills, but Styx adds a few other skills. You can temporarily turn invisible, use the game’s “amber vision” to look for ways around the levels, or create a clone of yourself to act as a scout or decoy. The game also adapts to your playstyle using a skill tree which lets you learn new abilities—maybe you’re more into stealth kills and you’ll want to unlock new takedowns, maybe you’re into using your clone so you’ll go for new skills to make your clone more useful, maybe you’re more into stealth, or use your amber vision frequently. Maybe you like using agility to avoid conflicts altogether. You basically choose how the game plays as you advance.
As for story, the world of Styx is one with deep lore. It’s a high-fantasy universe with humans, orcs, elves, goblins, and a handful of odd creatures. There is enough politics, conspiracy, and backstory to make you feel like you’ve come into a world with a deep history. The story is relayed in several ways, partly through the narration from Styx, partly through comic-like cutscenes reminiscent of the early Thief games, and occasionally through interactions with NPCs.
The characters and levels sit well in this world. Nothing seems out of place. But I do have one complaint about how it is relayed: there is very little contrast in character alignment. To say it like an RPG fan, all the game’s characters seem to range from Neutral-Neutral to Chaotic-Evil. There aren’t any Good-aligned characters, and because of this it doesn’t do enough to convince me that the bad guys are any better than the good guys.
But that’s kind of the feel the developers seem to be going for. You’re an anti-hero in a corrupt world. There is often a grimey tint to things. You can barf up a clone which you can use as a decoy or a scout and curse words are often used in dialogue (although the bad language usually seem out of place, in my opinion).
While the cursing does at times feel immature, however, the voice acting in Styx is decent. The main characters are done very well, voices of some of the NPCs are so-so, but overall it works.
As for graphics, Styx is a next-gen game (PC, XBox One, and PS4), but it surprisingly runs very well on my upper-mid-range laptop. I was almost able to max out the graphics without any lag. The game is also fairly long, with about 15 hours of playtime.
Overall, Styx: Master of Shadows is a good game. Players who are not into stealth games will likely find it frustrating. Despite its varying difficulty levels, it plays overall like a hardcore stealth game. But for fans of the stealth genre, Styx is sure to be a memorable and challenging experience and is one of the best stealth games to come around in years.
Styx: Master of Shadows is available on Steam for $29.99.