Coming out towards the start of this console generation, the first Styx game felt like something of a guilty pleasure of mine. Here was a traditional stealth game that eschewed combat and forced you to stay in the shadows or suffer for it. It was not without flaws, but with a sequel in Shards of Darkness, can Styx take that step forward, establishing itself as a stealth series worthy of your time?
One thing that Styx continues to do well, and even improve upon, is its sprawling level design. The levels here feel a little bit more open and free than in the first game, letting you more easily tackle different objectives in the order you desire, or simply giving you different paths through to the same place, whether that’s slinking from rooftop to rooftop, ducking between cover, or getting your hands wets with blood. They’re easy to read, making getting around without a map and just an objective marker feel quite intuitive. There’s also much greater visual variety, the game taking you through several different settings – it does, however, reuse levels, just as the first game did – and making use of Unreal Engine 4’s greatly improved lighting.
Styx’s set of skills has also grown and evolved. He’s learnt new tricks, like being able to grab enemies across cover, and as you progress through the game his accomplished but fairly basic starting skills quickly expand. Completing levels and objectives earn you skill points to put into five trees – stealth, killing, alchemy, cloning and perception – each of which culminate in a choice between two powerful skills. You also have crafting in the game, with the world featuring a handful of core elements that can be combined at a work table into life vials, amber, acid traps, lockpicks and more.
However, while Styx can do more things, he still fails or feels awkward at some of the fundamentals. Jumps can go awry just a little bit too easily, where I felt that Styx ought to be able to grab onto a handhold or ledge, but he just misses and leaves me to plummet to my death. Similarly, just trying to sidle along a ledge that you’re holding onto, Styx all too often comes to a corner or a minor thing that really shouldn’t block his progress, and yet it does. It also feels quite rare that using Styx’s abilities is really essential, to the point that when I did come up to one of the few environmental puzzles and only figure out that I needed to use a clone to trigger a switch remotely.
Similarly, the AI don’t feel like they’ve advanced much if at all since the original game. While on patrol, they’ll happily walk into each other and slide other guards out of the way, they’ll get stuck in tiny little idle loops, they’ll walk into a chair without batting an eyelid – a dynamic physics object that, if Styx knocks into it, will alert nearby guards – and engaging Amber Vision shows you just how straightforward their lines of sight really are. As long as you stay crouched outside of their small cone of vision, you might as well be invisible. That gives them a predictability, but it meant that I’d find myself barely bothering to check when walking into a room, because seven or eight times out of ten, any characters inside would be facing away and oblivious to my presence.
Things do ramp up as you progress, first with the reappearance of the blind, but incredibly aurally sensitive bugs from the first game. These chitinous gits force you to crouch to stay quiet, but also to move much slower to avoid making even the slightest sound. Dwarves, on the other hand, with classically Dwarven armour and a pleasing style of Norse architecture, can smell you coming and try to hunt you down. There’s the pressure of knowing that someone is eventually going to catch you up, adding an extra factor to your attempts to slink through a location.
Styx isn’t a particularly likeable character, but then as a shifty little git of a goblin who’s only out to serve his own ends, you wouldn’t really expect him to be. He can be quite fun, in his peculiar foul-mouthed way. You expect him to be murdering his way through a level, leaving a trail of blood and bodies, and that’s exactly what you can do, with him constantly chattering away. He also breaks the fourth wall on a number of occasions, in particularly during death screens when you mess up a jump or get spotted and hunted to death. It’s cheesy, and if you die often starts to repeat itself quite noticeably, but it’s a nice touch none the less.
Barely ten minutes into the game, Styx finds himself at the behest of the captain of Carnage Squad, a supposedly elite unit that’s expert at hunting and trying to eradicate the goblin plague that has washed across the lands since the end of the first game. You never see them in action as an elite unit and Helledryn’s motivations aren’t particularly well fleshed out, but the game does build up some intrigue and momentum, before sapping my goodwill with tracking back through prior levels with tedious mission design. With all the major characters engaging in varying degrees of duplicity and evil, Styx almost managed to compare quite favourably as he tries to carve out a space for himself, serve revenge up cold and bloody, and manipulate things in his favour.
There’s the odd technical issues that simply shouldn’t be there. Despite shifting to Unreal Engine 4, the texture pop-in issue from the first game remains, most noticeably occurring in darker areas. There’s also a frustrating lack of clarity over saves and checkpoints. Checkpoints are few and far between, but also don’t necessarily match up to objectives or what would feel like logical save spots and I often found myself punished by this. Defeating a boss didn’t trigger a save for me, and I found myself killed by the most inconsequential of enemies a few moments later, sending me back to the start. Instead you have quick saves, which on console are mapped to right on the D-pad. That’s all well and good, but a crutch I repeatedly forget to lean on until the game reminds me in the worst possible way.
Shards of Darkness could have been a big step forward for the series, giving you a more rounded set of gameplay possibilities, alongside the better looking environments and other areas. Alas it’s not as big an improvement as I’d hoped and is let down by bugs and inconsistencies. It’s a stealth game with one foot stuck in the past, and that remains both a blessing and a curse.
Version tested: PlayStation 4 Pro