Every couple of years, you’ll hear of a new stealth game that promises to capture the essence of being a thief unlike anything we’ve seen in the past. Some of these titles are looking to rejuvenate the playstyle from a previous series, such as 2016’s HITMAN, while others are making a bold attempt at improving the gameplay by trying something out of the ordinary. The latter is where Styx: Shards of Darkness falls into, with its grim portrayal of a goblin who’s refining the stealth genre one sequel at a time.
Sneaking around has never felt so thrilling. With the expanded environment provided throughout each multi-layered level, Styx will have plenty of small spaces to crawl around and hide. In Styx: Shards of Darkness, developer Cyanide Studio have included the addition of co-op, one of many new traits which let you pair alongside other friendly assassins to wreck havoc among foes. If you play your cards right, enemies can be left perplexed at the thought of two goblins invading their personal space.
Into The Den of Thieves
To begin with, you play as a goblin who is capable of delivering witty human speech and just so happens to be one of the most daring tricksters in existence. Enter Thoben, an underground city built around the finest thieves and assassins from all over the world. Styx is occupied with a handful of errands he must pursue in the city and ends up striking a deal with the Carnage Squad that will eventually lead him on an adventure of a lifetime. The storytelling in Styx has never been a major selling point, but in this case it steadily draws you into the brilliantly designed game world as you uncover the motive behind each action.
One of the most impactful decisions you will be making in Styx: Shards of Darkness is how you choose to play. Between fighting each and every enemy or going in undetected, the way missions are shaped is purely up to you. There is no circumstance where you must absolutely kill a guard in order to proceed with the area. Each level contains multiple sections and a depth of side-content to dabble in at your own pacing. As for the level variety itself, you will find yourself soaring across zeppelins to traversing an underground mine full of deadly traps. Careful not to set them off at once or you’ll have to reload a save.
While playing Shards of Darkness, I am often reminded of an old-school platformer from the early 2000’s due to the art style resonating from each individual character. Perhaps I should dust off my nostalgia goggles, but Styx and the Dark Elves look as if they were pulled directly out of an epic World of Warcraft quest. Behind their cynical grins, I have a feeling Styx and the gang cannot wait to relive the glory days of 40-man raids. All jokes aside, you will honestly come to admire what Cyanide Studios has done with the cast.
As one should expect from a game developed using Unreal Engine 4, the overall PC performance is top-notch. I was able to run Styx: Shards of Darkness in 4K on my meaty rig consisting of two GTX 1080’s and ended up maintaining a stable 55 frames per-second. To top it off, there are an abundance of graphical options to toy with and the game seems to naturally support ultrawide resolutions. You may encounter scarce frame drops in areas littered with numerous enemies, but I personally did not feel as if my gameplay experience was hindered by this rather tiny inconvenience.
Sharp Moves, Sharper Daggers
Deep within the underbelly of Korangar lies a mysterious elf who has snatched Styx’ prized possession. In order to make your way there, you must overcome several obstacles along the path by using logic. In Styx: Shards of Darkness, enemy encounters have been rebuilt with stealth in mind, including a greater focus on silently executing your opponents and avoiding detection. Figuring out the best path leading to your objective is never going to be a simple task. Observing enemy patrol routes and patiently listening on for footsteps is the way to go.
Long gone are the tedious one versus one battles from Styx: Master of Shadows which locked you into gear. If you’re one of those players looking for brutal hand-to-hand combat, this may not be the game for you. Missions will certainly get bloody, but the most you’ll get out of combat is the ability to instantly kill your opponent with the tap of a button. You also have the option to silently kill them by covering their mouths and watching Styx slice across their throats.
Then comes the parrying mechanic. I’m not fond of parrying in Shards of Darkness and I don’t think the devs are either. There are four difficulty levels and two of them completely disable the ability to parry enemy attacks. The timing on each parry is awfully slow and takes away from the sly nature of the game as nearby enemies are hastily alerted of your presence. If you’re like me, you would much rather traverse each corridor in secrecy instead of worrying about multiple guards concentrating on your position.
On the bright side, there are numerous corners Styx can quietly tuck himself into—ranging from antique armoires to rusty oil barrels. One of the reasons Styx: Shards of Darkness redeems itself from other similar games is due to having a complex AI detection system. Most of your adversaries will remember to check inside barrels, underneath desks and even attempt to sniff you out using their heightened sense of smell. For these reasons, you’ll have to engage in a bit of the old amber-fueled sorcery in order to distract your foes and make a clean escape.
Power and Skill
Little is known about the origin of amber but Styx is highly addicted to it. As a matter of fact, amber is the main source of fuel used to perform magic in Shards of Darkness. By default, Styx has the ability to create a clone of himself and go invisible at any time. You can later upgrade these skills by adding points into the Cloning and Stealth skill trees. One of my most favored skills is called Predation and it lets Styx instantly kill an enemy walking in front of a cupboard, while you’re hiding inside. Even though you may prefer to tackle your first playthrough stealthily, there is enough reasoning to assassinate a few guards down the path, especially if you plan on scavenging the area for loot.
Without being too critical, I must admit the overall skill tree system was somewhat of a letdown. Speaking from past experiences, there has always been an abundance of excitement once you gather enough skill points to upgrade your abilities. Alas, I did not feel the same way while playing through Styx: Shards of Darkness and believe the majority of these skills feel overly tame. There are a total of five skill trees, but the majority of my points went into Stealth and Perception. Sadly I did not get a chance to experience the jaw-dropping multiplayer co-op system due to playing an early review copy, which had no active game sessions to join.
Despite the minor issues, Shards of Darkness lets you experiment with the skill tree in many ways and creates a diverse gameplay experience depending on how you play. If you decide to put most of your points in the Alchemy tree, there will be a handful of concoctions and traps at your disposal. Since you can switch up your skill points during each mission, I highly recommend exploring various tactics in order to achieve the best results possible.
Although Styx is a fairly new contender in the stealth genre, Shards of Darkness is doing a great job at laying down a modern foundation from which renowned IP’s such as Splinter Cell and Dishonored can learn from. Each level lets you diverge from the objective and open up a handful of side-quests to pursue. Stealth games should never force the player to complete missions in a linear fashion and I’m happy Shards of Darkness takes that notion seriously.
There is a certain familiarity to the formula Styx uses, but at the same time it improves oldschool stealth concepts and brings new ideas to the table. The series has come a long way from Of Orcs and Men, with its smooth animations, clever gameplay design and an assorted mix of levels. My instincts tell me the series will only improve over time, as Cyanide Studios seems highly passionate about creating a true to form stealth experience that caters to a global audience. It’s safe to say Styx: Shards of Darkness is nothing short of a spectacular stealth game that brings the genre back to its roots and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.