The Thematic Incoherence of Styx: Shards of Darkness

Games Reviews Styx: Shards of Darkness
The Thematic Incoherence of Styx: Shards of Darkness

Imagine you’re starting a new job and at this new job there’s a man who works there. You’ve heard some decent things about him, he’s not great but he’s pretty good. And then you finally get to know him. He starts quoting movies and TV and it’s kind of funny at first but quickly grates on your nervous. He’s also foul-mouthed and sexist, constantly commenting on a woman’s weight. Then his supposed work isn’t even good, it’s barely average and sometimes flat out bad. And on top of all that, he berates you for doing something wrong that’s his fault.

That’s what Styx: Shards of Darkness is. A mean asshole of a game headed by a mean asshole of a lead character who think he’s better than you. I’ve never played Of Orcs and Men or Styx: Master of Shadows, the two previous games in the series, but all I knew was that they were stealth games. What I didn’t expect was that it wasn’t anything like modern stealth games. It was far more like a stealth game from 15 years ago. This entirety of this game feels like something from 15 years ago.

From the outset the animations look like a PC game from 2001 thrown hastily into Unreal Engine 4 with NPCs spouting the same 3 lines over and over again and moving around in the same canned animations. At one point Styx is thrown out of a window and screams as he falls only to not have his mouth move. The stealth and platforming don’t fare any better as your character doesn’t, well, seem to stick to his environment. Walking along a plank or ledge felt way tenser than it should be because the slightest movement to either side could send you falling off the level. Often I’d try to jump from the top of a rope to a platform only to have him actually bounce off the wall and plummet to the darkness below instead of grabbing onto anything.

styx shards of darkness screen 1.jpg

You’re given some sort of special vision that lets you see objects that you can interact with, and enemies and their sight lines, but that doesn’t let you plan out any sort of attack. The game has no traditional means of attack, in fact. If you sneak up on an enemy you can kill them quietly, which takes five seconds, or you can do a quick stab that makes noise. But if you’re caught, you can’t outright attack the enemy—you have to wait for them to attack and parry the attack and then go in for a kill. You can also throw a dart to kill a non-armored enemy, but there’s a caveat here, too: you must craft the darts and in order to craft the darts you have to scour the level for iron ore, find a crafting table, and then craft the darts. It’s incredibly tedious.

The game’s internal logic towards crafting makes no amount of sense. You have to scour levels looking for items to craft, and conveniently they’re all just laying around. Iron ore, fungi and spores are just left sitting around levels, even though it doesn’t make any sense for this stuff to be in any of these places. The second level takes place on an airship. Why would ANY of those items be on an airship? Why on earth would there be a very specific crafting table in every level? Fortunately, you can eventually unlock the ability to craft anywhere, but that should just be a base game feature from the start.

Among his abilities, Styx can turn completely invisible for a few seconds, and vomit up a cocoon that turns into a clone that you are free to control, but neither of those felt completely necessary. The clone can be used exactly like Styx but I never felt the need to use it outside of the game telling me during the tutorial. These and your combat skills can be upgraded but in order to upgrade you have to complete level objectives and earn medals for completing the mission as quickly as possible, not killing enemies and finding trinkets. In a game where you must sneak around as stealthily as possible, in levels that are packed with enemies, trying to do any of those is an exercise in frustration. To make it worse you cannot freely upgrade those skills. Much like crafting, the only time you can upgrade skills is at a Skills table, which can be found in missions or pre-mission hub levels. Which, again, is obtuse and tedious.

Within the first five minutes of the first level our titular “hero” makes both a Toy Story and Tarzan reference. Upon dying, Styx will talk directly into the camera while making a reference to something that couldn’t possibly exist in this fantasy setting. In my time playing he has quoted or made reference to The Terminator, American Pie and Shakespeare. He does the robot, talks about streaming games, and I’m sure there’s more that I’m forgetting. He’s like a less charming Gex without the added benefit of being voiced by Dana Gould. Outside of that, he makes constant crude remarks about boners, your butt and sex, and even says the completely gross sentence “These elves are as tight assed as a virgin in a barracks dorm.” Even his character model is gross, with his idle animation consisting of scratching his ass and sniffing his fingers.

I have no issue with crude humor—the Saints Row series is among my favorite games—but it makes no sense in this setting. None of this game makes sense from top to bottom. You’re tasked with finding out why dark elves are working with dwarves but, I’m guessing, if you haven’t played the first two games like me, you’re shit out of luck understanding why either of those races are important. The first level has you being hunted by a group called C.A.R.N.A.G.E. that kills goblins, but the game moves on so quickly from that plot point it’s worthless. Later levels have you facing up against bugs that can’t see you but will attack you from any noise you make, enemies that can’t be killed with your main method of killing, giant orcs, and flying insects that spit venom that saw me through Styx’s invisibility—and they’re all grouped together everywhere and they all want to kill goblins on sight.

Goblins are considered a scourge, being referred to as The Goblin Plague, but this game doesn’t give any indication of why goblins are viewed so harshly. Styx is apparently the only goblin who can speak and that’s a blessing because if I had to hear more creatures like him I’d rip my own ears off. And he talks SO much, quoting pop culture and cursing like a 5th grader who just discovered swears and wants to impress his friends. After every death he says something to you and more than once I audibly exclaimed “Just shut up already!”

If you aren’t already familiar with the series, there’s no reason to play this game. Even if you are, I’d be dubious. It has none of its own personality, instead relying on nostalgic action from older stealth games and pop culture references from before the character was even thought of. If you want to play an “old school” stealth game, you have many options that aren’t the price of a new game. If you want crude humor, there are far better options in games and other media to enjoy. If you want to get berated by an ugly creature who thinks he’s better than you, well, Twitter is free.

Styx: Shards of Darkness was developed by Cyanide and published by Focus Home Interactive. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for Xbox One and PC.

Terence Wiggins is the co-host of the podcast Whatever We Call It, the creator of the videogame online zine We <3 Video Games, the cookie wizard behind The Black Nerd’s Baked Goods, and the Internet’s best friend. He’s on Twitter @TheBlackNerd.

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