Styx, a character that debuted in Of Orcs and Men, stood out in his first solo adventure in 2014 with Styx: Master of Shadows. It was an appropriate name, since the focus of the game was almost exclusively on stealth gameplay, something that Styx excels at given his abilities. The game itself suffered a troubled release on the PC, but later updates and console releases eventually showed it to be a good stealth game.
This sequel, Shards of Darkness, follows precisely that same path. It's a stealth game with great design and controls, but it suffers in other areas. The narrative is somewhat weak, not only regarding the story itself, but also in the script and cutscenes. Styx: Shards of Darkness is by far at its best when it's being played, not when it's being seen, but even so, here's a synopsis:
Styx is a very special Goblin, since he can speak, and is particularly intelligent for someone of his race. He's also adept in the shadowy arts, and operates under a questionable moral code, having no problem with stealing and even murdering, on his own behalf or that of his potential employers. We won't reveal much more about the story, but eventually Styx gets an invitation too good to ignore, although the situation turns out to be a lot more complicated than initially expected.
Styx has other characteristics that set him apart, although none compare to his irreverent, arrogant, and over-confident attitude. Aggressive and tongue-in-cheek, Styx always has something to say, not just to the other characters in the game, but even to the player, such as when they die. It's a game that has its comedic moments, but eventually these can get tiring and annoying, as it can feel very forced and unnatural. This was never the strength of the previous game, though.
As in Master of Shadows, the gameplay and design is much more impressive than the narrative and characters. Due to his small stature, Styx manages to navigate the massive levels of Shards of Darkness with great ease. His agility is out of the ordinary and allows him to jump and climb objects, which guarantees fantastic verticality to the game. His size also allows him to interact with the scenery, using vases, cabinets, and beds to avoid detection, and he can also extinguish candles to move in the darkness, unleash chandeliers to frighten or kill enemies, as well as poison food and drinks.
Styx also has access to a bunch of accessories, including darts that kill enemies at a distance, objects to create distractions, and acid to dissolve bodies. The little Goblin can also access a range of useful skills too, including temporary invisibility and the ability to create a clone. This clone can be used to distract enemies and access dangerous locations, and eventually you can even swap places with the clone or cause gas explosions by sacrificing it. These skills require amber, a resource that doesn't regenerate, but can be found in the levels.
Shards of Darkness still retains some of the RPG roots of Of Orcs and Men, allowing you to evolve Styx through multiple strands. You can develop his capabilities as a killer, for example, as well as his stealth abilities, the clone's powers, and perception. There's also a simple crafting mechanic as well, which allows you to use the resources you gather on the map.
The gameplay is good, but where Cyanide Studios really shines is in the level design. Each map is massive, with numerous possibilities for you to exploit to get to your desired destination, which could involve climbing on rooftops, going on houses, and much more. This freedom of movement is impressive, and lays out many options if you really want to take your time and plan your missions.
Styx is a remorseless killer, but you don't need to play him like that. You can complete all the levels without killing a single enemy, for instance, and you will even be rewarded for it. At the end of each mission you will be classified in terms of swiftness (how long it took you to finish the level), mercy (how many enemies were killed), stealth (whether or not you were seen), and thief (how many medallions you gathered). In addition to these classifications, there are also optional objectives in every mission, from ripping up anti-Goblins posters to discovering secret rooms. Styx: Shards of Darkness offers excellent replay value for this very reason, and it even includes a cooperative mode.
Unfortunately we didn't get the chance to try out this cooperative mode in time for this review, but the campaign can be played with a second player, who takes on the role of a Styx clone. Again, we can't refer to the quality of the mode, but the size of the map, the game mechanics, and Styx's skills seem to include everything required for a fun co-op session with a friend.
Much of what we've already mentioned was true of the previous game, but there are some welcome improvements in this sequel, the most notable involving loading times, which are substantially reduced (at least on the PS4 Pro version, which we played). The time players had to wait every time they failed in Master of Shadows was frustrating, but in Shards of Darkness it's not even 10 seconds. This element is further smoothed because quick-save in this game is as easy as pressing right on the d-pad. This transforms much of the gameplay into a trial and error experience, one that rewards creativity and trying new options.
In a way it even makes the experience easier, especially for experts, but for those that like a challenge there is a higher difficulty option, one which forces you to start again when you lose, as well as other things. We must also mention the visual improvement, made possible through Unreal Engine Engine 4, and although there are some flaws, in terms of overall graphics, Shards of Darkness is far superior to its predecessor.
The previous Styx outing was a small hidden pearl for stealthy action lovers, and Shards of Darkness follows exactly the same course. Some of the biggest flaws have been corrected, but not all, which prevents this sequel from flying even higher, but overall it's a game that well deserves the attention of stealth fans. And let us be very clear - this is pure stealth, and should not be considered if you don't have the patience for this type of play. Styx is a Master of Shadows, and he requires a equally minded player to work.