Video Games Review: Styx: Shards of Darkness (PS4, 2017) is quiet in its brilliance

Despite being a spin-off of popular RPG Of Orcs and Men, the Styx franchise has largely flown under the radar in the stealth genre. The first game, Master of Shadows, was a digital-only release, but with its newest entry, it’s finally time for the series to get the attention it deserves. Simply put, Styx: Shards of Darkness is a game that oozes personality. From the brilliantly designed and uniquely varied levels, to Styx himself, the game brims with a confidence that makes the experience all the more enjoyable. Travelling through the dark slums of Thoben, to the brilliant elf city of Körangar, Shards of Darkness weaves a compelling tale filled with political tensions, magic sceptres and one particularly crude talking goblin.

Beginning in the dank slums of Thoben, home to crooks, thieves, and our dear friend, Styx, the game begins as most stealth games do; in a dark, dimly lit city. Thoben serves as the tutorial mission, and bears all the hallmarks of a classic stealth level. In order to steal a certain document, Styx must use all of his powers, wits and guile to avoid or kill the largely dull agents of C.A.R.N.A.G.E., who seek to exterminate all goblins, and escape the slums. Styx’s powers include classic invisibility, as well as the curious, if a little disgusting, power to barf up a clone of himself in order to distract enemies. This ability became very handy throughout the course of the game, as it creates a brilliant way to lead enemies away from guard posts and conspicuously placed dead bodies. Upgrades to these abilities become available to you after each level is completed, allowing better stealth, longer lasting invisibility, and access to other, more dangerous abilities.

Styx is a delight as the protagonist; a fourth wall breaking, throat-slitting, sarcastic, loudmouthed goblin that shouldn’t fit in the stealth genre, but burrows himself in there all the same. While Styx stands out in the game, his uniqueness is often at a detriment to other, lesser characters. C.A.R.N.A.G.E. agent Helledryn, who becomes your reluctant companion, is a largely bland and one note character as a result, as she becomes a reactive force against Styx, with barely a drop of her own personality. With a wholly unique personality and ability set, Styx sticks out in the genre, and not just for his dashing, goblin looks. His humour and sarcasm as he narrates his way through a variety of stunning worlds is genuinely funny, with clever writing providing much needed levity in the darker moments of the game. There’s just something inherently funny about Styx yelling out ‘POCKET SAND!’ as he launches a handful of sand at the nearest lighted brazier to dampen its flame. It’s moments like this that differentiates Shards of Darkness from other stealth titles, which often don’t display the level of self-awareness found in Styx.

It’s hard not to draw parallels between Shards of Darkness and fellow stealth titles Thief and Dishonored, especially when the game goes out of its way to poke fun at its competitors. One exceptionally petty side mission allows you to hunt down and kill C.A.R.N.A.G.E. defectors known as ‘Carvo’ and ‘Garrett’, while the game is littered with Styx’s sarcastic asides, referring to everything from Assassin’s Creed to The Terminator. In a lot of ways, Shards of Darkness borrows distinct elements from each of these games; the free-running style from Assassin’s Creed, the stealth mode of Thief, the wall climbing of Uncharted, but despite this patchwork approach, Shards of Darkness feels largely unique. With an array of worlds, each with their own brilliant design, Shards of Darkness contains a variety not often seen in stealth games. While the first levels of the game take place in the typically dark and dimly lit alleys of Thoben, the next levels see Styx take to the skies and visit the bright and colorful realm of the dark elves, alleviating much of the doom and gloom of the opening chapters. It’s refreshing to see a stealth game that doesn’t rely so heavily on the convenient darkness to shine.

One area that felt like a let down was the wall climbing and rope swinging, which largely failed to emulate the success of similar mechanics. While initially, I had no trouble leaping from bracket to bracket, in later levels, this mechanic seemed broken, as Styx had trouble locking on to these points. Multiple times, I was sent plummeting to my death because the lock-on mechanics failed me at the last second, and I could only watch on in regret and some measure of loathing as Styx went flying. This presented a large challenge in the elf realm of Körangar, as the best way to break into the embassy without setting off the alarm was to cross a chasm filled with rope swings and climbing brackets. While I had enough trouble locking onto the brackets, the true horror came when I attempted to mount the climbing rope. It was, quite simply, the most frustrating experience of the entire game. The rope wouldn’t swing in the direction pointed, and seemed to judder and twitch, throwing Styx around the area like a ragdoll, and multiple times, flinging him to his death below. If this had happened once, I would have put it down to a simple design flaw, but this happened multiple times in different areas. I can only hope that an incoming patch will fix this oversight, because I very nearly abandoned my goal because of it.

While this did prove to be a frustrating experience, the best thing about Styx is that missions can be achieved in a plethora of exciting ways – including my preferred approach, the run and gun (or run and ancient knife, as is the case). The combat in Shards of Darkness is much improved from the first game, though it does require a lot of levelling up to be effective. Confronting guards head on leads to a quick-time battle for dominance that often leads to death if you’re not quick with your reflexes. This approach can also lead to the sounding of the alarm that, as one might expect, isn’t the best outcome. Sounding the alarm brings the entire fleet of guards down on Styx and again, leads to almost certain death. The best approach is, of course, the stealthiest, avoiding the guards altogether. This presents a whole new realm of challenges, as clever AI means that guards can discover you even if you’re hiding under objects or in cupboards. Often, I would feel safe in the comfort of being hidden, only for a guard to leap in and drag me kicking and screaming out from under a desk. It’s this level of spontaneity that kept me so engaged and involved in Styx’s story and world.

Shards of Darkness feels like a breath of fresh air in the stealth genre. It’s a game that borrows heavily from other franchises, but one that has enough panache and personality to pull off a unique approach. While the story is mysterious, yet unremarkable, the game remains entertaining through sheer strength of will, and a generous helpful of sarcasm and smart humour. Combat is effective and neat, and with a little tweaking, the game’s only major flaw could easily be patched over. For fans of the stealth genre, Shards of Darkness is an essential title.

Review Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Smooth combat and stealth; Brilliant level designs; Great protagonist; great moments of clever humour
Lowlights: Climbing controls; stilted facial animations; lack of developed characters other than Styx
Developer: Cyanide
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release Date: Out now!
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Playstation 4, Xbox One

Reviewed on Playstation 4.