If you have even the slightest aversion to stealth then you will want to stay away from Styx: Shards of Darkness. Indeed, if the notion of being patient, analysing enemy patrol patterns and not being able to properly engage in combat when all else fails makes you feel a bit queasy then, again, Shards of Darkness really isn’t for you. For the rest of you though, for whom patience is indeed a virtue and where every guard that can be sneaked past is a triumph, you’ll find no purer stealth title on the market right now than Styx: Shards of Darkness.
A pure stealth title that isn’t for newbies
For those who haven’t been previously acquainted with Styx previous adventures as depicted in the first game, Styx: Master of Shadows, the premise is about as clear cut as you can get. Cast as the titular Styx, a skulking goblin assassin who cares for little beyond his next payday, Shards of Darkness has the green-hued vagabond infiltrating the city of Körangar to unravel a conspiracy between dwarves and dark elves, though largely, it’s all just a paper setup for Styx to indulge his criminal activities in a range of different locations.
And what a range of different locations they are too; from villages and castles through to a couple of airships tethered to one another high in the sky, our fiendish green protagonist certainly gets his fill of exciting locations to stab about in. More impressive than the variety of such locations however, is the calibre of their design. Consistently boasting sprawling vertical and horizontal structures for the player to explore in and around, where skywalks sit on top roofs, which in turn sit upon any number of tunnels, walkways and secret passageways, the massive areas within Shards of Darkness are a joy to explore and provide Styx with no shortage of routes to his objective.
Speaking of objectives, Shards of Darkness provides the player with ample incentive for venturing off the beaten path in the form of experience point incentivised secondary objectives, bonus objectives and a handful of collectible items and reagents. In the case of the aforementioned reagents, these can be used at crafting tables dotted throughout the game to fashion all sorts of expendable items from arrows to explosives, healing potions and more which can be used on your clandestine incursions.
As far Styx himself goes, the dude is basically a walking Viz comic that by espousing a constant fountain of crude remarks and swear words, comes across as that faintly racist, utterly non PC older relative that most of us have known at one time or another. In short, while Styx might elicit the odd guilty chuckle from time to time, he ultimately isn’t as funny as he thinks he is and his post-death skits soon become tiresome and repetitive.
Further afield is Styx hideout, which serves as a hub of sorts to the game’s story campaign in-between missions. Here, the pint-sized assassin can invest his hard won experience points into a number of different skill trees expanding his range of takedowns, increasing the number of items he can craft and much more besides. There’s an impressive amount of depth here when it comes to the sheer amount of unlockable abilities and skills, and given just how different each subset is the creative latitude for player customisation is pleasingly substantial.
Something which may jar players who are familiar with other stealthy fare however, is that many of the abilities and skills that are taken for granted in those games, such as aerial kills, ledge kills and more, must first be unlocked before they can be used; making Shards of Darkness feel, in its early stages anyway, a little more lacking and rudimentary than it otherwise might have. This is something for folks to bear in mind if they’ve been neck-deep in other stealth titles such as Assassin’s Creed or Hitman.
Amplifying the enjoyment of the story campaign though, is the fact that it can be tackled with a flesh and blood partner. Taking control of a Styx clone, the second player can do everything the main player can within the context of a level; the only exception being that only the first player can carry forward any earned experience points or mission completion rewards. Sure enough in this sense, it seems a touch limited, but for just the sheer enjoyment of attempting (and often failing miserably) to be stealthy together, the co-op mode in Shards of Darkness proves to be a much worthwhile and entertaining distraction indeed.
More than meets the eye
Despite the somewhat stunted skill system, the game neatly taps into our hero’s status as a gross, snot-hued scamp as Styx has a couple of tricks up his filthy sleeves that his other, more humanlike stealthy counterparts simply do not have. For a start, he can vomit the content of guts into soup and fruit bowls to incapacitate his foes the next time they stop to grab a bite to eat or something to drink, while likewise, Styx can also booby trap alarms and kick poison barrels onto groups of enemies, too.
Equally, Styx can also consume amber potions to infuse him with power that can be used to support a number of bespoke magical talents to expand his stealthy arsenal yet further. From puking up clones of himself to distract enemies to an invisibility spell that blinds everyone to his presence, these arcane abilities compliment a game that already provides the player with an embarrassment of creative riches when it comes to tackling any given level.
In spite of the myriad skill trees, non-traditional level design and penchant for grotesque trickery that Styx possesses, Shards of Darkness still manages to lean on traditionalist stealth design pretty darn heavily for the most part. As one might expect there are no shortage of lockers and chests to either conceal yourself in, or the bodies of the recently dispatched, while the runes on Styx’s dagger light up to show when he is concealed in shadow and equally extinguish when he is not; neatly mirroring the visual concealment cues of Splinter Cell’s own indomitable Sam Fisher.
Where things feel a little uneven, is when Styx is navigating the various locations he finds himself wandering about in. Chiefly, there seems to be a problem with the little green git not always jumping where he’s supposed to. For example, hand-holds that exist on many of the surfaces in the game cannot always be leapt to reliably even if it seems they are well-within range; a not-so-handy indicator tells you where Styx will end up when he jumps, but it doesn’t appear all the time which makes dying on account of its impermanence a tad frustrating to say the least.
Combat is a not a safety net
Also highly annoying and a carryover from the first game, is how Shards of Darkness handles combat; in so far as it fails to really handle it at all. As was the case in Styx: Master of Shadows, confronting an enemy really isn’t an option as a clumsy mini-game appears where you have to time your parry to the incoming strike of an enemy in order to pull off a successful counter kill.
The problems with this system are many. Firstly, you can only parry and cannot perform any sort of offensive yourself unless you’re successful with the aforementioned parrying. Secondly, the timing on the parry is ridiculously uneven, making it difficult to pull off at the best of times and lastly, while all this horrendous nonsense is going on, you can’t do anything about the other dudes in the room who are looking to lay a goblin-sized smackdown upon you.
In short, parrying absolutely sucks, and look, I get the fact that this is a stealth game (obviously) and that confrontation should be avoided, but in other titles of a similar ilk where you screw up (and you will do so very often in Shards of Darkness), there’s often a far more elegant safety net in place than simply having you sat in front of a foe waiting to be attacked like some sort of starstruck cretin.
A little rough around the edges
Very much like the grinning, toothy antihero that serves as its protagonist, Styx: Shards of Darkness is somewhat rough around the edges when it comes to the presentation side of things. First the good stuff; the leap to Unreal Engine 4 has proven to be a boon as Shards of Darkness boasts its fair share of jaw agape visual moments, such as the mist lazily blowing across the bow of an airship as it crosses the night sky with the celestial illumination of the moon behind it, for example.
While Shards of Darkness is visually leagues ahead of its 2014 predecessor, it’s not all sunshine and happy vomiting, as the game has extremely poor lip syncing on both real time and pre rendered cut scenes, in-game aliasing and shimmering shadow issues and finally, some really rather long initial load times, in addition to the odd full-on crash once in awhile. Shards of Darkness is an arguably more accomplished effort than the first game then, but it’s clear that there’s still work to be done going forward in this regard.
In many ways, Styx: Shards of Darkness feels like a stealth triathlon. Sprawling in scope, with incredibly dense level design and a wide range of skills and abilities to learn, it’s fair to say that Styx second outing shouldn’t be the first stop for folks to new to sneaking about; especially given how Cyanide’s sophomore effort makes precious little concession for those unfamiliar with the rigours of this sort of game design. For veterans of the genre though, Styx: Shards of Darkness presents a tantalizingly robust challenge with a lustre that is only mildly tarnished by handful of technical issues.