Styx: Master of Shadows is a gem. Coming from one of Of Orcs and Men and Impire developers, Cyanide Studios, this prequel to Of Orcs and Men was a stealth platformer that managed to sate the taste of stealth enthusiasts with its deep level design and tight controls. Its combat was criticized by some for its stiffness and unfairness to the player, but others found that it enhanced the theme of a stealth game calling back to series like Thief, Splinter Cell, and Tenchu. On March 14, Cyanide and Focus released a sequel titled Styx: Shards of Darkness to the world. Does this sequel manage to please fans of its predecessor or does it fail to measure up to the original?
Styx: Shards of Darkness starts with a more identifying visual aesthetic; the graphics are more detailed and the night levels sport a beautiful blue skybox. The mine portion has some impressive lighting. There really is a bigger sense of scale in this game than that of Master of Shadows when you go into Korrangar for the first time. There are many “wow” moments visually, especially coming from Cyanide which we commend. The animations in cutscenes are still pretty stiff but are overall improved from Master of Shadows although slightly. Still some characters in scenes seem like robots from a pizza place but they manage to not be very jarring and all cutscenes are skippable.
The story is directly set after the previous game and starts with Styx,who is in hiding in Thoben after the fall of Akenash, retrieving pay for job until approached a C.A.R.N.A.G.E squad established after the Green Plague stemming from the ending of Master of Shadows and the squad captain, Helledryn. Events lead to the main premise being a mystery to finding out about the secret of a gathering between elves and their alliance with dwarves. The secret is wild and leads Styx and his partner into sticky situations making for some of stealth gaming’s most intense moments. The rival in this story, Djarak, has a sparse presence. Our main character finds out more about him and the shards of “pure quartz” leading Styx into an addicted hunt for more. The story requires a good amount of attention as some revelations come out as shocking especially to those coming in from Master of Shadows. The story is still acceptable to newcomers as well though some parts might still leave you going to the wikis for clues. The plot manages to stay interesting throughout the 9 missions given with little-to-no filler. We still have questions regarding what happens to some characters who just fall out of the story and the very abrupt ending.
Styx himself is a lot more colorful but still as mean. He frequently uses pop culture references, citing Tarzan, Terminator, Dishonored, and Thief, and has new game over screens where he mocks the player. You can turn these off and while Styx’s humor is pretty valuable in the story, it isn’t as great here. The adventure overall feels more defined and ambitious here than in Master of Shadows even with the cliffhanger.
The depth of the levels are increased with the bigger scale of the adventure. The foes you come across are as simple as the first but along with some advanced versions of robies and other guards are the new biggest additions: dwarves. These enemies can detect you with their heightened sense of smell, which made them interesting adversaries. On the other hand, the giant orcs in the middle end were just underutilized. There weren’t many hiccups with AI pathfinding on Initiated but the main problem was that some enemies wouldn’t detect you in places where they should such as the edge of shadows. I recommend at least starting on Goblin difficulty though combat is permanently crutched. The placement of enemies isn’t too unfair and provide a perfect challenge with any method of traversal across the game’s nine missions. Combat is still as stiff and frustrating as the first entry, so you’ll still be only parrying away from guards, though they removed the unnecessary lock-on. People who found that a turn-off will still feel that way about this sequel. There are still a lot more enemies that instantly kill you anyway.
Keeping consistency with the first, there’s still a lot of great platforming while sneaking around each map to complete side missions and meet the mission goals for time, kills and alerts. The feeling of jumping roof-to-roof, sliding down rope, and sneaking past guards to get an item on your way to the main goal is cathartic. The game also doesn’t look down on murdering enemies, making it one of the few moments in stealth where killing doesn’t cause me to load up my quick save (though perfect runs are still the best). This is all thanks to Styx’s grumpy and nasty character.
The side items and faster loading into any level is convenient for speed runs. The skill tree is expanded upon, but you manage to obtain a good amount of skill points so you never have to worry about how much you need to grind for more points. The abilities from the first are all back: cloning, invisibility, etc. Crafting is now a feature though not on the fly, but at benches provided in the hub or certain areas in each level just like upgrading skills. Adding to the value is Co-op, so if you find anyone else as into stealth as you, you can test your synergy, though the mode largely feels tacked on. The trials and the ending are more platforming-oriented trials still having enemies to duck, making for a good rebreather. However, the final levels are disappointing in how they just go back to previous levels and I expected the biggest test of skills as a master of shadows from the finale, which was disappointing too. Seems like they ran of steam toward the very end.
Sound design is standard for stealth games but there is still love to be had for the sound of making a jump from seemingly impossible leaps and detection.
Styx: Shards of Darkness hits the mark of what a sequel should be: bigger and better. Any fans of Master of Shadows will feel very satisfied with this and more. The later levels and new use of enemies leave a lot more to be desired but if the cliffhanger leaves it open for new titles, then we hope that Cyanide and Focus has more in store for us. Styx: Shards of Darkness is one of the best stealth titles in a long while. It manages to bring cathartic platforming without the need of an autorun button and pure stealth that forces you to use your wits with the tight mechanics laid out to you. We hope that in the future, they bring an even bigger scale and flesh out a better third of it.
Styx: Shards of Darkness has a starting price of $39.99 on Steam. The page also provides a free demo.