Styx has a plan and it’s going perfectly, he thinks. In a move befitting a modern Hollywood blockbuster, he’s got himself captured by the Human contingent within the Tower of Akenash, a vast fortress that was built alongside the Elves to protect the World Tree and the addictive magical Amber that it produces. As he’s interrogated, the rugged little goblin tells the story of his attempted heist to steal the heart of the tree for himself. A heist that clearly still has a fair few stages to play out.
This is a game that calls back to the past of gaming in several ways. Primarily, it’s in how rigidly it sticks to the core notion of stealth, that of remaining undetected. Stay within the shadows of the Tower of Akenash, strike when the patrolling enemies are alone and you’ll feel practically invincible, but put just a single foot wrong and the game will punish you.
Styx as a character is particularly well suited to stealth, though, as a rather diminutive and nimble creature, able to leap from handhold to ledge or easily hide from sight under tables or behind cover. The Tower of Akenash is almost perfectly suited to his agility too, with missions made up of several linked locations that are all designed to feature a number of different paths and often of a rather freeform layout, whether you want to sneak around on the ground, or head up to the rafters.
In fact, there’s a rather impressive scale to the world wherever you look. Styx might be more at home in the darkness of the hallways of the tower, but he’ll find himself passing through huge halls, jumping from one ledge to another. By and large, the third person viewpoint and controls manage to tread the fine line with its platforming, with a nice level of response that made jumping to even rather small platforms possible without any kind of automation from the game. Some things do suffer from imprecision and lack of clarity though, with dropping to hang from a ledge, pull down kills and aerial kills three particular examples of things that are finicky and not very well explained in the game.
Hiding is certainly a large part of the game, but it can be a means to someone’s end. His dagger will let you mercilessly stab enemies to death if you catch them unawares, but you ideally want to take enemies out with a silent kill, with Styx muffling the guard’s sounds as they grapple for several seconds, as a quick kill makes a lot of noise. On countless occasions, this wait had me silently pleading for my attempted murder to be over before another guard returned, whether just so that I could scarper into cover or secrete the corpse somewhere out of sight in a cupboard or dark corner.
However, Styx has plenty of other tricks in his bag. For one thing, the Amber that runs through his veins allows him to create and control clones, using them to explore, distract enemies, squeeze through gates to pull levers and plenty more. If you simply want to get past a few guards, turning invisible is another option, though this uses up a lot of amber so needs to be used wisely, and there are a number of upgrades to his abilities that you can earn as you complete primary and secondary objectives.
Escaping when discovered is really the only sensible option because combat is a limited and deliberately restrained affair. You can only fight one on one with an enemy, the game auto-locking you into a duel in which you must parry a few incoming attacks by watching the visual cues of your foe to time your button presses before finally being able to kill. Alert multiple enemies or get yourself cornered and you’re almost certain to die.
While you can combat a standard human guard though, later enemies make things more difficult for you. A number of the enemies that you encounter after the first few levels are able to kill you in a single blow without recourse. It forces you to avoid combat as much as possible and find environmental ways to kill these harder enemies, such as dropping a chandelier on their heads – there’s quite a lot of chandeliers – or gobbing in their water to poison it when they’re not looking. It’s almost to its detriment though, as I was quite often caught out and found myself replaying a number of sections of the game time and again.
The patrolling AI helped me in this case by being a little bit too predictable in their routes and timing, which let me iterate upon my trail of silent murder until I hit upon a plan which works. It does ramp up the pressure with greater numbers of more attentive enemies as you progress. If you’re not sufficiently hidden, enemies can spot you even in the darkness and when they’re actively searching for you they might start to check under tables and other likely hiding spots. They’re always rather wary of the sounds of chairs, buckets, brooms and other world objects being knocked over. Elves can even smell you coming, though this is actually the Amber coarsing through his veins rather than the pong of Styx’ sewer hideout.
However, this distinctly old school sensibility when it comes to the gameplay sadly manifests itself in many other areas of the game. Checkpoints are few and far between, though you can save manually, and while the overall scale of the world before you can be quite impressive and there’s a good environmental variety on show, the graphics are far from mindblowing. That grand scale is a saving grace when the second half of the story starts to reuse earlier locations, and it was only when I recognised the view from a particular ledge that it sunk in what they were doing. Some levels did simply require you to retrace your steps and avoid increased enemy patrols, though.
There’s an almost amusing absence of lip syncing and repetitive animation during in game cutscenes – story between missions is told with sparsely animated frames and dialogue – and the lacking pool of different voices or incidental lines of dialogue also disappointed. Everyone’s a rather stereotypical brit of some sort, though I did quite enjoy the very literal and callous “Oh, he’s got himself killed,” that often came out when a body was found and how sweary Styx can be, especially as he cries out “F**k yoooooou!” when he falls to his death.
These were really minor complaints compared to the persistent texture pop in around the edges of the screen that would happen whenever I turned the camera quickly. It’s not something I would have expected to see, and though my eyes did tune it out and it was only on the periphery, it was quite jarring to note.
Styx almost feels like a quite literal step back in time to when full performance capture was barely even on the horizon and when games didn’t hold your hand and let you get away with mistakes. There are numerous flaws that definitely detract from the game, and these things are indicative of the smaller studio and production compared to modern AAA games, but then again, Styx costs nowhere near as much and knows what it wants to be: a hardcore stealth game.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4