Of all the gaming properties I ever thought would see a spinoff, Of Orcs and Men was pretty close to the bottom of the list. The tale of orc berserker Arkail and goblin thief Styx fighting back against their human oppressors was funny and occasionally thought-provoking, but the gameplay behind it was too rough and buggy for most players’ tastes. That said, Spiders and Cyanide Studios painted a fascinating and original dark fantasy world with their first outing, and I’m happy to have the chance to revisit it. The icing on the cake is that the game Cyanide has made this time around is unequivocally excellent.
Styx: Master of Shadows is a prequel to Of Orcs and Men set some 200 years prior. As the title subtly indicates, you play as Styx, the sneaky, snarky goblin protagonist of Orcs. Styx can’t remember much – his head is pounding due to the influence of a magical intoxicant known as amber – but his mission is clear as day. He must infiltrate the Tower of Akenash, an imposing man-made fortress – to find and steal the heart of the world tree, the source of all amber. Along the way he’ll take down a despotic governor, fracture the fragile alliance between men and elves, and discover some shocking truths about the nature of the world and his own mysterious past.
Though it makes use of light RPG elements, Styx: Master of Shadows is a pure stealth game in the vein of Thief. Our Goblin antihero is cunning, but puny – less than half the size of a grown man. He can’t hope to go toe-to-toe with most human guards, but his small stature and light weight allow him to slip silently into hiding spots where no human would think to look. By scaling walls, crawling underfoot, and sticking always to the shadows, he can get the drop on his foes, or flit by at the edges of their perception, leaving them none the wiser.
It feels like ages since we’ve gotten a good, proper stealth game, rather than some hybrid built around player choice. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have stealth as an option in games like Deus Ex and Dishonored, but there’s something to be said for games where sneaking isn’t optional. Titles like Thief or Mark of the Ninja make full-on assaults next to impossible, and force you to observe, think, and plan in order to advance. Styx stands firmly and proudly in this camp – you have the ability to parry enemy attacks, but taking on two or more guards almost always spells certain death. At the highest difficulty setting man-to-goblin combat isn’t even an option. If you’re spotted you just have to run and hope you don’t get pegged with too many crossbow bolts or throwing knives.
Luckily, Styx isn’t without options when it comes to sneaking around. In addition to his natural goblin stealthiness, the amber flowing through his veins grants him several supernatural powers – though his use of them is limited by a meter. His “amber vision” highlights guards, collectibles, and interactive objects in the environment, allowing him to get a better handle of his surroundings. “Invisibility” does more or less what it says on the tin, allowing him to temporarily blink out of sight at the cost of half his amber bar. The most interesting tool at Styx’s disposal is his clone, which can be generated at any time (by puking up an egg in a thoroughly disgusting manner) and controlled directly. The clone can be used to scout ahead and open doors, and won’t raise an alarm if it’s seen, but it isn’t capable of collecting items or killing enemies – though it can explode into a cloud of smoke to create a diversion. Styx can destroy the clone at any time to regain the amber used to create it, but if it’s killed or you use it as a smoke bomb it will consume about a quarter of your amber.
These powers can get you out of a pinch, and the clone especially is immensely useful with a bit of ingenuity, but because their use is so limited you’ll need to solve most problems with good old-fashioned subterfuge. Styx can drink vials of Amber to recover his meter, but at the beginning of the game each one only fills it up halfway, and you can only carry two. Health vials work much the same way, so you’d better try your best to avoid combat and to only fall short distances. On top of these, Styx can carry a few more items in his tool belt. Throwing knives allow lightly-armored enemies to be killed at a distance, and can be used to stop a guard from raising the alarm or – with good timing – to kill two enemies at once. Once they’re dead, acid vials allow you to dispose of their corpses if you have nowhere to hide them. If you’d rather leave your foes breathing, mud balls (made from spit and sand) can be thrown at torches to douse them, or at enemies to get their attention – though you might want to try whistling first.
As is true of all the best stealth games, you need to understand and manipulate your environment if Styx is to succeed. Light and shadow play a key role in the game’s stealth system, and enemies can spot you at a much greater distance in well-lit rooms. It’s easy to tell when Styx is hidden, because the amber markings on his body glow in the dark (not unlike the gem in Thief). You’d be wise to snuff any torch you can – though you need to be cautious that no guards are nearby when you do it. Once the lights are out, a thrilling tension is felt as guards peer into the newly-made darkness, staring directly at Styx without realizing it. You also need to be cautious not to make noise – Styx’s feet patter on tiles and cause floorboards to creak, and if you’re not careful enemies will take notice. Floors are also littered with small obstacles like buckets and mops, and you can cause quite a racket by knocking them over. Your best bet is to try to walk on carpets – which can even muffle the impact as you drop down from the rafters – or to stay off the ground if none are available.
Styx borrows a lot of elements from Thief, but it borrows equally from Assassin’s Creed. The game’s levels are open, sprawling, and vertical, and Styx will have to do a lot of jumping and climbing to navigate them. Staying above enemies is a good way to evade them, though Styx makes use of smart level design to force you down to their level quite frequently. The blend of Assassin’s Creed’s acrobatics with more traditional stealth sensibilities works exceedingly well, and allows for a game world with much more depth than the flat environments typical of the genre. It can get a little silly when Styx is clearly silhouetted against the sky but still invisible because he’s in the shadow of a weather vane, but overall it’s very effective.
Unfortunately, Styx borrows a lot of the problems from these games as well. Jumping is a tad on the imprecise side, but Styx is floaty enough to course-correct on his way down. Grabbing ledges especially is very hit-or-miss, and sometimes Styx will hop up immediately when you want him to hang – which can be a gigantic pain in the ass when it pops you right up into the sight line of a guard. Dropping down from a crouching position is even more finicky, and you’ll inadvertently fall to your death quite a few times over the course of your adventure. This is mitigated by a very forgiving save system – you can essentially save whenever your feet are on the ground – and quick load times, so it will never take you too long to make another attempt.
The Thief games are at their worst when they force you to fight monsters, and Styx runs into similar problems as Cyanide Studios tries to diversify its enemy roster. The first few new enemy types actually work quite well. Roabies are giant, violent, sound-sensitive insects whose presence forces you to move at a snail’s pace, which can make things very tense when they appear alongside regular guards. Knights are impervious to your blades, meaning they can only be killed with environmental hazards, and they will instantly kill Styx if they catch him. The game runs into trouble with orcs, who essentially function as stationary roadblocks that you must sneak around on pain of instant death. Orc hitboxes are a little too large, and their retribution is instantaneous if you touch them. The orcs who grab at you out of prison cells can instantly kill you even if you’re a foot away from their grasping hands, and the ones who sleep in the middle of the floor will crush you in an instant if you so much as sneeze in their vicinity. Encounters with orcs are also usually structured like puzzles rather than open-ended challenges, so they go against the spirit of experimentation that permeates the rest of the game. They’re no fun to deal with, though fortunately you don’t have to deal with them too often.
Styx: Master of Shadows is broken up into a series of missions, each consisting of three or four separate levels. Each level has a primary goal – usually to get to the exit on the other side – as well as a secondary objective that provides a bit of extra challenge. How you reach your goal is largely up to you, as there are multiple valid routes through each area, though pursuing secondary targets will likely change how you go about things. These extra objectives are generally very inventive, and some of them are intensely challenging. Many ask you to retrieve an extra item from a high-security area, or to find secrets hidden around the map. Sometimes Styx will need to perform an assassination, and in one level he then needs to carry the body with him to the exit, which turns a fairly straightforward path into one of the hardest sections in the game. Doing so without being detected on a non-lethal run is nearly impossible, but I’m proud to say I pulled it off. Completing these goals earns you a substantial amount of skill points, which can be used to enhance Styx’s abilities.
At Styx’s hideout you can access the skill tree, which allows you to augment all three of his Amber powers, as well as his carrying capacity, killing power, and agility. Every enhancement you buy substantially changes the way Styx plays, allowing him to kill enemies from the air, or hide clones in chests and have them spring ambushes. It feels worthwhile to spend your hard-earned SP on upgrades, and if you don’t like your build you can always reset it and buy different skills. In addition to the aforementioned goals, you can earn additional SP by winning insignias in levels. You get one for a non-lethal run, one for a no-alert run, one for a speed run, and one for collecting all the tokens within the levels. The first three are all reasonable, but the fourth is a bit of a drag – the tokens serve no other purpose within gameplay, and if you don’t get all of them they count for nothing. The reward for earning these insignias is pretty paltry too – only 20 SP – so they’re really only there if you want to challenge yourself.
The Tower of Akenash is a gorgeously realized setting rife with little details that bring it to life. The architecture is stunning and imaginative, evoking many old-world styles without directly aping any one in particular. With shades of steampunk and elements that appear to be wholly unique, this is anything but a generic fantasy world. Top-notch lighting really helps to bring it all together, giving each level its own tangible mood. The characters that inhabit the world are equally well-made, with distinctive but practical armor designs and worn faces full of personality – they could do with a few more different faces, but every game has its budget limitations. Styx himself looks fantastic, with a scarred, world-weary face and sharp, glowing eyes that betray his cunning – a far cry from your typical game protagonist. The texture work on some models can be a little fuzzy, but that’s forgivable in light of such excellent designs.
The game makes it clear from the outset that goblins are foul creatures – in case all the barfing and spitting didn’t clue you in – and Styx embodies that whenever he speaks. Whether he’s crying out in pain or having a friendly conversation, he’ll loose a torrent of obscenities that would make Trevor Phillips blush. Just like in Of Orcs and Men, every other line in Styx: Master of Shadows contains, at the very least, an f-bomb. If you don’t have too delicate a constitution, many of these lines are outright hysterical, and they don’t just come from the hero. As you sneak around, you’ll hear the guards talk amongst themselves. Mostly this amounts to exposition about the world, but occasionally they’ll bring up petty jealousies, or discuss their drug habits, or wax poetic about finding a quiet corner in which to masturbate – and these moments humanize them a little. There’s a thoughtfulness that underscores all of this raucous vulgarity though, and in that way it’s somewhat reminiscent of my time playing Drakengard 3.
Styx’s musical score is nothing short of phenomenal, with full orchestral arrangements composed by French artist Henri Pierre Pellegrin. The songs are moody and somber, punctuated with bursts of percussion and furious strings when the action heats up. Music like this can really help to stretch a game’s tension to its breaking point. It’s not quite up to the level of Olivier Derivière’s score for of Orcs and Men (which was performed by the Boston String Quartet), but then, almost nothing else is. This is easily one of the best soundtracks so far this generation, and it’s among the best the stealth genre has to offer as well.
Styx: Master of Shadows is as pure a stealth game as they come. It forces you to be thoughtful and to observe, and rewards your patience with a satisfying tension that few games can match. The abilities Styx has at his disposal are all great fun to use, and the levels are designed in such a way as to encourage experimentation and creativity. Ghosting through a level is exhilarating in ways I haven’t felt in ages, and Styx brings a substantially better story to the table than most of its contemporaries. Despite a few rough edges, Styx: Master of Shadows deserves a place alongside Metal Gear Solid 3, Hitman: Blood Money, and Mark of the Ninja as one of the best titles the genre has to offer.
Version Reviewed: PC