Master of Shadows introduced Styx to a lot of people, whether they bought it at launch or decided to jump in during it’s time on PlayStation Plus and now Xbox Live’s Games with Gold.
The devious little goblin is back in Shards of Darkness – read our early impressions here – and so we sat down with Lead Level Designer Julien Desourteaux to talk about the game and how Cyanide are looking to improve on the original.
TSA: After the events of the first game in the Tower of Akenash, what’s next for Styx? Where is Shards of Darkness set? Who is he going to stealing from and murdering this time?
Julien Desourteaux: Without too many spoilers – which is hard because Shards of Darkness is set between Master of Shadows and Of Orcs and Men – the green plague has been created and there has been the Goblin invasion. It’s a completely new situation for the people in this world, and so they try to kill them and to hunt them. That’s the start of Shards of Darkness.
Also, there is a huge lack of amber, and that’s why Styx, though he can still create some clones and he can still become invisible, you will see that it’s very rare to find those potions. But you find a way to find more, and that’s why you will have to travel. It’s not like in the first one where it was all set up in one location. We wanted the player to have a [journey].
TSA: Is having that added variety something you feel is important for this sequel? Is having this one location something that people felt was a negative from the first game?
Julien: Not too negatively, but for some of the players, there was that we reused locations, for example.
TSA: Yes, because you went back through levels in reverse…
Julien: … And without changing a lot of things, as well.
In Shards of Darkness, there are a few locations, but we changed totally what you do in the missions. We’ve added a lot of variety and diversity in the objectives. For example, you might have an investigation to do, because you have to learn who your target is. Each time you play the mission, it will be another target, so you will have different ways to solve the mission.
For example, you can [spy on some guards] to learn that he is wearing a certain outfit and has brown hair, and stuff like that. Or you can look for clues in a location and maybe discover something that brings you to another place.
We wanted to change the pacing of the game as well. There are missions where you don’t have to be a detective, and we have some puzzles as well. We tried to add diversity, and also always have two objectives in the same place.
TSA: Oh, so like a main objective and an optional one?
Julien: No, no. Two things that you need to do, because sometimes it’s hard to [do objectives in a particular order], so now we like to have more missions where you just have to do that and that.
TSA: Yeah, and it means that then it pushes players to experiment and have a different experience depending on which objective they choose.
Julien: Exactly, and we thought it was very interesting to push the player that way. Also, with the crafting system, we have some rewards for the player to explore, because they can collect some materials to craft. So we will encourage the player more to explore these places, than in the first one.
TSA: Speaking of the crafting system, it was said in the presentation that it was inspired by The Last of Us. Is that in terms of how accessible and easy to use it is? Or also in terms of how rare items are to find and the decisions over what to make?
Julien: It’s all about choices, because you only have certain materials, but you have two or three items that you can make using them. It’s all about combinations and quantity, so it’s up to the player to choose if he wants to make some traps, or maybe he wants to make cocoons, because he prefers playing with the clone.
TSA: One criticism I do have from the first game was about the guards and their routines. They didn’t feel particularly dynamic and have very compact routines. Are you working to make them bigger? Because poisoning people is good, but it’s not as interesting if you see guards going to the same water bucket every 15 seconds.
Julien: Yeah, I see what you mean, but it’s hard. It’s all about learning patterns.[A lot of players] love to analyse and plan their actions, but if a guy only goes to drink once in a while, it’s not efficient, you know? So they could be more random with their patterns, but when you take a risk to poison something, you want it to be efficient. Otherwise, you won’t poison food!
What we do more than in the first game are the vigilant patrols who, when they have detected something, will change their patrol. They will change the pacing of the game…
TSA: And is that kind of alertness going to last longer, or be a more widespread attitude change?
Julien: It’s not the case in the presentation, but they will not sleep anymore, they will not drink anymore, they will try to protect one entrance. It will force the player to choose another way to infiltrate or another avenue of opportunity.
And with the alerts, now you can trap the bells and you can prevent the guards if something bad happens.
TSA: And finally, with the first Styx, it came out as more of a budget release; it wasn’t full price, it was digital only. What are you aiming for with the sequel? Obviously there’s more awareness for the game and the series, so is this a more ambitious project?
Julien: Yeah, I think it’s more ambitious. We are on Unreal Engine 4, which is a good upgrade for the graphics, and we try to improve a lot of things. I think we had some good things in the first one and we’re trying to polish some of the rough edges off our project. For example, the movement and the controls, where you pull a trigger and will grab ledges automatically when you fall. We want it to be a hard game, but not an unjust game.
Thanks to Julien for taking the time to talk to us. You can read our thoughts on what Cyanide have been able to show of Styx: Shards of Darkness here.