The phrase “stealth action game” is thrown around to describe titles like Dishonored, Thief, and Metal Gear Solid. It’s a term familiar in any gaming circle imaginable and its meaning is self-explanatory—an experience with both stealth and action elements woven with varying degrees of severity. To place Styx: Shards of Darkness under this category would be surprisingly inaccurate; it’s incomparable to other titles of the genre because of its practically nonexistent action piece. Although it makes perfect sense that a small-statured goblin would be better at hiding than fighting, the constant sneaking around quickly grows tedious and further developed abilities would do wonders for the adventure. By any means, this isn’t a weakness in itself, but when combined with a surface level story and shaky gameplay mechanics, the result is a game that can only be called decent at best. Fortunately, it does the stealth part pretty well, bringing it up to the halfway mark of being a stealth action title.
Shards of Darkness picks up right where its predecessor left off. The events that transpired in Master of Shadows have earned Styx—along with rest of goblin kind—a terrible reputation and a condemning sentence from the rest of the world. Elves and dwarves have banded together to bring about the extermination of the goblins. It appears that Cyanide Studio has set the stage for some interesting directions, but they don’t take it very far, leaving me subject to a shallow setting with characters I don’t particularly care for. Styx himself, a brazenly sarcastic individual, is comical and entertaining, so it’s unfortunate that the game does nothing to make me concerned about his fate. On the other hand, the inadequate world building is slightly covered up by Styx’s mannerisms. He’s hilariously profane and his situational commentary makes not-so-subtle references to prominent titles of the genre. Also, the sequences that come after his death are unexpectedly enjoyable. It’s not often that a video game character criticizes you for getting him killed, but these appreciable details aren’t enough to impress on their own. Interactions, motivations, and personalities are all underdeveloped with the rest of the cast, next to Styx himself having only the most basic objectives. What could’ve been a desperate struggle for survival is reduced to a cranky protagonist who just wants to spite the rest of the world.
The game does a much better job with the way it develops Styx’s arsenal; his clone creation and invisibility powers are available from the start, but the way they function can have some interesting applications depending on where you invest your skill points (SP). It’s a basic system where you earn the points from completing a mission, then spend them at a skill table to unlock additional functions. One playthrough doesn’t provide enough SP to max out every skill tree though, so it helps to be mindful of where they’re spent. No matter what, you’re left at the mercy of a disappointingly anemic selection of abilities, all of them revolving around Styx’s primary two. To make up for this, you can also spend SP to boost passive abilities and craft more powerful tools. These are extremely helpful when trying to earn a gold ranking for each category of your performance. Every mission is ranked bronze, silver, or gold in four categories: mercy, swiftness, shadow, and thief. They depend respectively on the number of people killed, how quickly the objective was completed, the number of alarms raised, and how many tokens were collected. If you can be stealthy, efficient, and thorough, you’ll be earning more SP at the end of each mission and can therefore grow more powerful. The game effectively rewards you for a showing a greater level of skill without nudging you toward any particular playstyle.
In comparison with the original, Shards of Darkness’ level design has undergone by far the most improvement. The first game provided Styx with a number of paths to take, but they were noticeably more limited than they are in the second. Verticality is the word here; your traversal options almost always include a way up. This should be a huge plus, given that the most dangerous place to be is on the ground. Unfortunately, one of the game’s fatal flaws has instead made it detrimental (more on that later). Regardless, the environment is expansive and accommodating to the clambering goblin with little more than an objective marker as a guide. Interactive objects are highlighted by Styx’s amber vision (think eagle vision in Assassin’s Creed/detective mode in Batman) and it’s just as invaluable as its counterparts in other games. Everything from fruit plates you can poison to an enemy’s line of sight is made visible, revealing opportunities for risk-free kills or unseen pathways. The incorporation of noisy objects is also a nice touch. When an object (usually a chair or vase) is colored blue in amber vision, you have to be careful to avoid it. Moving into it will cause it to shift or fall over, making noise and drawing the attention of nearby enemies. Each level is well-crafted and full of elements that make you watch your step. They don’t entice as much creativity as Dishonored, but the options are there and I easily consider them the biggest strengths of the game.
Here is where Cyanide Studio should have put some more effort. I don’t have a huge number of issues, but the ones that presented themselves severely cripple the experience. There’s nothing worse than jumping toward a nearby ledge, only to miss and fall into plain sight of your enemies. During the first couple of chapters, I assumed I was just misjudging the distance, but the entire game was rife with gambled leaps toward surfaces Styx may or may not grab onto. Even reloading saves and trying the same jump over and over gave me different results, showing that the edge detection is hit or miss. A multifaceted level design rewards the ability to stay out of sight and gives you plenty of options to climb above threats, which would work exceptionally well if it wasn’t held back by the unclear determination of whether or not you can make the jump. I found myself constantly saving and reloading before making even the simplest of leaps (not an option if you choose to play on the hardest difficulty setting). Accidentally falling from your vantage point is a costly mistake in any stealth action title, but it’s even more dangerous in Shards of Darkness because of its terribly imbalanced combat system. Styx is limited to parrying an enemy’s attack and escaping. Admittedly, this is the way stealth games should be structured. Being discovered should, by all means, thrust you into a dangerous situation. But breaking stealth shouldn’t equate to death and having to start at your most recent save, which it practically does here. Open combat is little more than an afterthought and literally nonexistent if you choose to increase the difficulty.
The elements that this game has executed well are saturated by the game’s shortcomings. It has characteristics that impress, but in a fashion that makes its weaknesses even more regrettable. I can’t say which is worse, a game that’s abysmal in its entirety or one that has enough strong points to leave me wanting more, only to fall short in the end. Styx: Shards of Darkness is a game with promising components overshadowed by an inconsistent experience. The good moments are present, but sporadic. I wouldn’t recommend it hot off the press. I do, however, suggest the following: if you’re a stealth action fan browsing the pre-owned shelves a few months down the road, definitely pick up a copy. 20-30 hours of sarcastically narrated throat-slitting is still worth your time, if only to be insulted by a digitized goblin when you get him killed.