Cyanide Studios released the sequel to their Styx Master of Shadows which released not so long ago in October 2014. Entitled Styx Shards of Darkness the wisecracking goblin thief Styx returns in a new adventure against dwarves, elves and orcs. It’s a perfect excuse for more stealth action but this time Cyanide have opened things up a little with some free-form gameplay. The bottom line is, should you rush out and buy Shards of Darkness and if you’re not too well versed in the original game why is this an improvement.
To begin, the core game remains decidedly the same as the previous outing. It leans more on the stealth side than action though. Styx is unable to engage in melee attacking with his adversaries rather strike from the shadows with deadly kills with the option to perform silent kills at the expense of speed, or more noisy death-bringing enabling a quick getaway if spotted. A third option and by the game’s design most preferable is simply avoiding killing altogether which on default difficulty setting at least isn’t as hard as it sounds. Enemies have a specific line of sight and with the levels themselves offering plentiful dark spots to hide in means it’s quite easy to stay out of sight if one is careful enough. If Styx is discovered then there’s a small window of opportunity to parry enemy attacks for a quick counter kill although this is sketchy at best without the upgrade to increase the counter time window.
To be frank, depending on how you play it’s best to simply reload a save if discovered and try again as the odds are stacked well against you once the poop hits the fan. There’s an option to quick save anywhere which is handy indeed although quite hard to ignore and can become overused. That said, there’s a fair bit of trial and error at times accompanied by plenty of cheap deaths so having a handy save is a godsend for those with less patience. Probably the biggest gripe with the gameplay is some shoddy jumping animations where swinging from ropes for example is a right royal pain. Some clambering on buildings and objects can also be problematic at times. So whilst it’s nice being able to pretty much go anywhere some of the jumping to ledges isn’t as intuitive as it could be. So, that save anywhere option shows its worth time and time again even if it feels a little like cheating.
There are extra abilities to be learned by way of spending XP from completed missions which increase Styx’s ability to track enemy movements, increased item crafting, cloning and stealth but most of these aren’t necessary for those with a bit of patience. Simple moving around in the shadows, climbing onto ledges and looking for alternate routes are offered in spades so any extra tricks are simply optional that only become relevant during specific scenes. The only time cloning was genuinely useful was during a boss encounter and a tutorial segment at the start of the game. It’s quite possible though to beat the game without killing anyone, in fact during each mission you’re rewarded for doing so. Cloning allows you to create decoys and distractions which depending on your play style you’ll either use readily or ignore. It’s probably safe to say the design is to offer player choice but bear in mind more XP is gained for not being detected, not killing anyone and not wasting time playing with the patrolling guards.
The biggest draw with the revised gameplay here over the original is the level design which offers much more freedom to traverse and scale. It’s a more open affair with choice as to how you get from A to B. If you’re looking to be a killing machine without a care for bonus XP then there are plenty of opportunities to take out anyone getting in your way – aside from dwarves who appear in the latter portion of the game who have the unique ability to sniff you smelly hide at 100 paces and dig you out should you think hiding in a barrel is going to help. Taking stock of tactics here means simply observing patrol routes and like a bad smell not lingering around for too long in their company. Whilst annoying at times, it’s good there’s a bit more challenge thrown in over the regular enemies who are a bit dim to say the least.
Visually Shards of Darkness looks the part with some moody outdoor locales to plunder and dark interiors to fathom. Obviously some levels are better looking than others but it’s nice having a bit of visual variation even if some levels are reused. Whilst the game isn’t the most detailed looking in terms of textures or bathed in lot of fancy effects, it does run relatively smoothly especially on PC in 4K. There’s a number of options to tinker with to suit your system as you would expect.
Audio is of a mixed quality with obviously Styx being the central star of the show offering a plethora of jokes and wisecracks which shows the developers aren’t taking things too seriously especially when the forth wall is broken upon each death. The other voice actors do a reasonable job with the script they are given but sits on the side of typical more than anything. Moody music and sound effects fill the aural sphere making for a game that’s well in tune with its dark side which is good considering Styx is the perfect anti-hero.
Shards of Darkness offers 10 missions to play through which take quite a bit of time to complete especially if you complete extra objectives and hunt down collectibles. In this regard there’s certainly some replay value once the end credits roll to maximize your score and clean up for 100% completion. What also has to be noted is if you spent the entire game not killing anyone to replay game in the opposite manner and clean house. To add more longevity to the game there’s a co-op mode for online players where you can team up as a clone to tackle the levels. This is a neat extra if you’ve got a partner that’s on your level and can make for some fine team work inspired moments.
Styx Shards of Darkness is very much a welcome improvement over the previous game with its more open levels and tight stealth gameplay. Whilst there are a few niggles here and there most notably with the controls, the core game is well met and mostly fun to play despite some cheap as cheese moments at times. For stealth purists this is certainly a solid game to invest in but for newcomers the fact there’s no get out clause once things mess up could prove more frustrating than anything.