by Ingvi Snædal
previewed on PC
Sneaky, sneaky, stabby, stabby
I love stealth games. I used to refer to them as “sneaky, sneaky, stabby, stabby” games but it's a genre not embraced by everyone. Stealth games aren't supposed to be action games but some players try and play them as such. Stealth games should be intense, they should test your patience, and they should punish you if you fail to be invisible to your enemies. Styx, the loveable Goblin from Of Orcs and Men, is back to teach us how it's done in Styx: The Master of Shadows.
Styx is over two centuries old and is the oldest of all Goblins. Inside the tower of Akenash lies the secret of his creation. The tower holds a magical secret: a tree that produces Amber, the lifeblood of the world and a liquid bursting with magical powers. Humans and elves protect the tree, but in order to learn the secret of his creation, Styx must make it to the heart of the tree. Plus, the little guy's heavily addicted to the stuff, so he's naturally drawn to the tree for that reason as well.
Out of his element
Going hands-on at Gamescom, Styx: The Master of Shadows presented a bit of a learning curve. You need to learn to read you environment, judge each situation individually, estimate time, distances, and behaviours. Most importantly, when to strike and when to stay in the shadows. As Styx isn't the strongest fighter in gaming history, combat mechanics are fairly basic. He's fine against one opponent if you manage to time your parries correctly and strike while the enemy is vulnerable, but as soon as two or more show up, Styx is screwed. During combat, it appears, Styx is quite a bit out of his element.
That's all right, though, as the sneaking around in Styx is among the most satisfying stealth experiences I've had for a long time. Sneaking up behind a single patrolling guards and stabbing them in the neck is immensely gratifying and the punishment of being sliced to pieces by a crowd feels like it's your own fault for not staying in the shadows. This is a stealth game, after all. The guards are very sensitive to sound and respond to the noise of litter like buckets and brooms which are strewn all over the place. Mind your step! Sound attracts guards and guards attract more guards. Guards are bad. Hiding their bodies in closets and other hiding places will help keep your presence a secret for a bit longer but you will want to be as sneaky as Goblinly possible.
The powers available to Styx include invisibility, Ambervision, and cloning. Invisibility is quite self explanatory but the Ambervision is a clever form of orange night vision that also highlights interactive elements. Cloning has Styx vomit up a slimy controllable clone of himself which can get to places Styx can't or act as a distraction while Styx sneaks past a group of guards. In addition to this, the game features some RPG elements that will allow you to unlock skills, special moves, and new equipment.
Burning lanterns light up the scene in many locations. Styx can turn these off by hand, or throw balls of sand at them to suffocate the flame. This creates an interesting dynamic asthe stifling of the fire reduces the risk of being spotted, but putting out the fire puts you at risk if it is noticed by the guards. Although the game is very vertical - being set in a tower - the areas and challenges presented create a very open playspace that can be explored freely. The locations have multiple themes as you progress from the basic manufacturing floor to the administrative section higher up the tower. Keep your eyes open for secret pathways as hiding places are everywhere.
Even in its unfinished shape, Styx: The Master of Shadows felt wonderful to play. The encounters I experienced were intense and satisfying. I died quite a lot, but each time I knew why and accepted it as being my fault for not being more careful. I played on a console and it worked wonderfully using a gamepad. How it will behave with keyboard and mouse remains to be seen. The quality of the build we played was very high, though, making me eager to play the full game upon release.