by Johnathan Irwin
reviewed on PC
Hello Goblin, My Old Friend
We're fast approaching my three year anniversary here on the site, so it's only fitting that I review the sequel to one of the titles I reviewed during my first year on the site. You'll recall I reviewed Styx: Master of Shadows in late 2014. I praised it for its superb stealth gameplay and replayability, but felt that the combat was awkward and that NPCs were suffering severely from tunnel vision.
Now with a few years between to refine the gameplay, comes Styx: Shards of Darkness from Cyanide Studios. Taking place after the events of Master of Shadows, we take on the role of the mean, green, sneaking-machine goblin Styx. Foul mouthed, poor mannered and bad tempered. I couldn't help but love the guy then and I can't help but love him now; the severe lack of a filter and speaking before thinking is something that, while not acceptable in the real world, is very welcome in gaming. With Styx's character intact and noticeable from the mere opening moments, the game had set itself up to grow, stay par for the course or fail. So, which path did the developers lead Styx down this time?
Grim Beauty, Green Scourge
Forget about Akenesh. The almost literal tower of wide open atria and claustrophobic hallways are a thing of the past, and there's a new world to explore in Shards of Darkness. From dilapidated shanty towns, to dwarven monoliths, to the ornate splendor of the elves and even places left untravelled by the populace of the world; Styx is going to see a lot more this time around and that's for the better visually.
It's also for the better in terms of design. I was blown away by how many more route options have been added into this sequel. Where the first game had something averaging along the line of 3 or 4 valid paths for most levels to reach a goal, Shards of Darkness is much more accommodating to the creative player. I can't use the word infinite, but it sure feels like it more often than not. That point is hammered home very quickly during the prologue chapter, as players really get a glance at just how much more they have in terms of options of getting from point A to point B, as well as dabbling in side objectives and collecting items along the way should they choose to.
I replayed the prologue itself a few times over just to make sure these other routes really were as possible as they appeared and, sure enough, they were. That formula continued to hold up even a few hours into the game as locales began to change and opposition became a bit tougher to outsmart. Also I'm happy to say that the peripheral vision of the NPCs has been improved enough that they aren't entirely blind to their left and right! That adds a bit more of a razorís edge to the experience as you're treading about; I'd still like them to be a bit smarter, but I'll mark that as a welcome improvement even without an all around improvement on the AI.
In addition to the improvements to the setting and freedom given to the player, general gameplay feels much smoother than before. While the sneaking felt nearly top notch in Master of Shadows, Shards of Darkness makes controlling Styx feel as smooth silk. To say movement and acrobatics have been refined is an understatement, so let me put it this way: controlling Styx puts the movement controls for ANY Assassin's Creed title to date to shame. While that series feels smooth, they often feel like they have hiccups when scaling the environment even despite the game doing most of the footwork for you. With Shards of Darkness putting all the movement responsibility in the hands of the player, it opens doors to a far smoother stealth-scaling experience as long as you're coordinated enough to time your movements right. As Styx himself so boldly calls out, "I may climb on roofs and scale walls, but you won't catch me wearing a stupid white tabard with a hoodie!" it seems the character's confidence in his ability makes up for where his lack of fashion fails. Don't worry Assassin's Creed, your protagonist outfits are still preferable to the rags Styx wears. But please, do take note on the movements; our green goblin friend can be learned from.
Unfortunately, even with a bit of refinement to the combat it's still very much a last resort and suffers from the same pitfall of its predecessor. These faux-quick time events of parry, parry, parry, kill are a bore. Styx is as lethal as they come with sneak attacks, but in open combat he hasn't picked up any real new moves for his dagger. I know it's not a game about fighting, but when things hit the fan I'd like something other than running and trying to get out of sight to be an option.
Green Makes The World Go Round
The first game was an unsung hero of 2014 for me, but now with a little more kick behind its sequel Styx: Shards of Darkness has set itself up to be noticed by more eager gamers looking for a challenging stealth experience. With a more optimized experience, more freedom to the players and more of that sarcastic and vulgar goblin goodness, Styx has found his way once more back into the heart of this gamer - with a sharp dagger and sarcastic commentary.
Notable improvements on an already smooth controls, NPCs now have passable peripheral vision, numerous route combinations give an extreme amount of freedom to the player.
Combat is still an awkward mess.