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Styx: Master of Shadows

By Bobfish14-11-2014
Gronnings (editor)
StuntmanLT (editor)
Styx: Master of Shadows

The Defence

Focus Home Interactive
Action, Adventure, Stealth
Release Date:

The Prosecution

Intel Code 2 Duo 2.4 GHz
AMD equivalent
Nvidia GeForce GTX 560
AMD Rareon HD 5850
3 GB
8 GB

The Case

Have you ever been playing one of those modern, pseudo 'stealth' action games, the kind where you have an over-experienced, over-equipped, unstoppable death machine, and thought to yourself, You know what this game needs? A three-foot-tall protagonist that's weak as shit and dies whenever a gentle breeze blows in their general direction. What do you mean no? Well, Cyanide did it anyway. And so I give you Styx: Master of Shadows.

The Trial

(Spoilers, spoilers everywhere: if you continue to the second page there will be heavy spoilers regarding plot developments, but doing so is optional as everything you need to know will be covered here, on the first page.)

Styx: Master of Shadows is a prequel to the somewhat niche, generally favourably received Of Orcs and Men, which expands upon the origins of the titular, little, green gobshite. A Goblin—the only one of his kind in this fantastical setting—and a master assassin/thief, he is tasked with making his way to the centre of the miles-high Akanash tower and stealing the heart of the World Tree for ... some reason. Possibly to do with 'Amber', which grants those who imbibe it certain powers, including but not limited to invisibility, telepathy and self-cloning, all of which are key gameplay and/or narrative features along your journey.

Okay, let's see what we can see.

Okay, let's see what we can see.

The game opens with a lengthy introduction, which includes a narration by Styx so loaded with information it leaves your head spinning. Cyanide do not waste any time and throw you right in at the deep end. We’re assailed with a merciless barrage of new terms, names and flavour text that, oddly, makes everything seem far more familiar, rather than alien and mystifying. The quality of scripting and the cast’s delivery gives everything a sense of authenticity, which allows dialogue to flow so naturally that it takes only a little time to get up to speed with what everything means.

This could be helped by the fact that the introduction is so confusing. This sounds contradictory but, like Styx, who tells us right from the outset that there are holes in his memory, we know just enough to set us on the path. There is a lot of padding that sounds vaguely familiar, perhaps important, but we can worry about burning that bridge when we come to it. Right now, we know who we are, have a rough idea where we are, and we have our goal. Steal the heart of the tree. Simples.

Of course, it's not. Styx begins the game injured (a hardship he will face several times on his journey) and unarmed. These design decisions are used to good effect as part of a lengthy but unobtrusive tutorial section, which remains perfectly playable even on subsequent playthroughs, which is certainly something to be proud of. Rather that stopping the action for sweeping, aerial reconnaissance of the area as certain other stealth games do (naming no Assassin's Creeds), everything takes place in real time. Styx’s tutorial uses pop-up notifications which, whilst being of enviable size, are positioned such that I even missed most of them my first time around, coupled with some, often amusing, tidbits of wisdom from our boy Styx.

Giz' a kiss big boy.

Giz' a kiss big boy.

The gameplay is pretty straight forward too, requiring little experience with the stealth genre. Stay in the shadows, don't make too much noise, don't walk straight up to a guard and rub your balls on his chin whilst whistling 3 Lions ... That kind of thing. Meanwhile, the game-specific things, such as using sand to snuff out torches from a distance, is intuitive enough that you don't even need Styx's succinct explanation. All of this has you on the ground, running, in a matter of minutes ... after first the fifteen minutes or so that the introduction takes, that is.

Functionally speaking, everything works. There are some design choices that hamper enjoyment, sadly, although not to a significant extent. Little things, like the fact that Styx will automatically pull himself up onto a ledge unless you hold down the jump button; surely it should have been the other way around. This does not ruin the game in any way, but can be incredibly frustrating at times, and serves to hold it back from perfection.

Everything else, however, works as well as you could hope. Guard AI is a bit flaky, and the ragdoll bodies can ... seriously ragdoll, but it rarely becomes anything other than highly amusing. On higher difficulties, certain enemies can kill Styx the moment they get their hands on him, making stealth all the more integral, and even on lower difficulties the brute force approach is discouraged with an intentionally clunky, one-button 'duelling' system that drives home precisely how underpowered the wee chap really is.

Go home clone. You're drunk.

Go home clone. You're drunk.

His ability to remain undetected, by squeezing through crawl spaces, or leaping up to the ceiling and skulking through the rafters (old bugger can jump, let me tell you!), is his greatest strength. Thankfully, only one section mandates staying hidden with threat of instant failure, and even this fails to be anything game-breakingly frustrating due to solid mechanics and a blessed save anywhere option. (But be wary of that. I had a few instances where I quick-saved in the wrong spot and had to restart an entire section because a guard was looking right at me. Make sure to double up with a regular save, too.)

Styx’s other skills are ... actually almost entirely optional. Apart from a few instances where certain skills (mostly his ability to make a clone) are mandated to progress through the game, you can pretty much complete the entire thing relying solely on your wits. That’s actually not a bad thing. Being able to turn invisible and walk straight past an alert guard is useful, certainly, unlocking multiple methods for approaching every situation. But there is nothing in the game that penalises you for running out of Amber (basically magic points) at a crucial moment.

Plus, your Amber always refills to a minimum level, which is enough to use your Amber vision, which you use to see guards’ line of sight and hidden sigils that point you to alternate routes, or to make a clone should you need to. The latter is more useful, as the almost invertebrate body is like a cat, allowing it to squeeze through gaps to reach levers otherwise beyond your grasp. You also have the option to take direct control of the clone and use it as a distraction, or to directly grab a guard to keep him occupied whilst you wander past or shiv him up.

Uhm...I'll just leave you two alone...

Uhm...I'll just leave you two alone...

The latter option, however, will reduce your score at the end of the level. Each of the game's chapters, which are split into 3 or 4 sections each, has certain objectives, most of them consistent, such as remaining undetected throughout and killing no enemy, and others specific to an area, such as finding a shipping manifest or assassinating a snitch. Each of these, once completed, gives you X number of points which can be spent on interesting, though mostly irrelevant, character upgrades. Some of them, like being able to jump down and kill an enemy from above, can be useful—and fun (mm tasty!), like leaping out of the rafters and literally eating a guy’s face. But most of these character upgrades are nothing more than minor tweaks to existing mechanics.

Level design is absolutely superb, although the game remains entirely linear insofar as narrative is concerned, with your goal always being to reach the other side of the level. Each of the areas you explore are enormous and sprawling, filled with multiple paths, hidden collectibles, and entire sections which can be skipped if you so choose. There is never only one way to approach a situation, with most having several even before factoring in Styx's Amber abilities. And even though the second half of the game has you playing backwards through the levels again, new sections open up that were previously denied but visible, that keep them feeling fresh and worth exploring a second time.

Visually, Cyanide have put the industry favourite Unreal Engine to good effect. It is certainly not the most graphically advanced game, and is honestly only just par for the course, but animations are beautifully fluid, and environments are dripping with atmosphere. The interplay between light and shadow can be a little inconsistent sometimes, with apparently brightly lit areas being considered pitch dark and vice versa, but Styx has an intricate tattoo on his arm that glows brightly (just go with it) when he is fully submerged in darkness, so just keep an eye on that, and you'll do fine.


Move along, nothing to see here. It was just swamp gas.

Move along, nothing to see here. It was just swamp gas.

The voice acting is odd. Personally, I enjoyed it immensely, though it was certainly ... well, odd. Just about every single character, from guards all the way up to Styx himself, has a very broadly, common-as-muck English accent. This works perfectly fine, but may leave some wishing for line deliveries with a little more panache. It really depends what you are going for. I felt they fit the setting perfectly, giving everything an interesting dichotomy between the high fantasy and very down to Earth, real world elements—a veneer of normality to keep everything grounded in reality, if you will.

The story, meanwhile, seems quite simple on the surface, plodding along at a fairly sedate pace to begin with. It can also be a little confusing as you, apparently, flit back and forth between present Styx, held captive by the master of Akanash tower, recounting his tale; and past Styx going about his business. But about a third of the way in, there is a clever little twist that throws everything into a whole new light. Suffice it to say here that there is a lot more depth than you may at first suspect. It’s explained in further detail on the next page, should you wish to continue.

Case Review

  • Length: Clocking in at a good 10-12 hours, this is not one to breeze through in an afternoon.
  • Level Design: Massive, sprawling and gloriously intricate.
  • Narrative: So much more involved than it at first seems, able to be appreciated on so many levels.
  • Mechanics: Some minor quibbles will lead to annoyance, but the game actually works as a stealth game.
  • Voice Acting: Whilst it is certainly something new, it's also a little odd.
  • Ledge Grab: The automatic jump-up thing really is a pain in the arse sometimes. But when that is the only real complaint ...
Score: 4/5
I am Styx, the Master of Shadows.


Stealth games seem to always find themselves caught between two worlds: emphasis on combat, as in Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Thief 4, or on exploration, as in the older Thief and Metal Gear Solid games. It's a mechanic that tends to get ruined when shoehorned into first-person shooters. Yet, a game such as Styx comes along, and we get a refreshing take on stealth mechanics and exploration, even when it's done so clearly on a budget.

Not to use marketing buzzwords, but the sense of scale in the game is excellently done, and the sheer amount of exploration that one must do in order to find all of the collectibles, or simply to progress through the levels is masterfully executed. The older Thief games got away with hiding everything away behind the city's skyline, but Styx prefers to craft levels that are simultaneously open to exploration, yet claustrophobic, as you use tables and other nooks and crannies to hide yourself in. The game is, however, never quite sure of what to do with itself in terms of voice acting. It's not necessarily bad, per se, but I never quite got used to how the characters, particularly Styx himself, sounded. Combat, too, takes a backseat to letting the player explore and have fun. This isn't necessarily a bad thing but, typically, if you're fighting more than one guard in close-quarters combat, you're likely going back to a checkpoint, which is a forgivable grievance in a title with such great stealth mechanics.

For someone who relishes the thought of scouring the environment for collectibles, and being as stealthy as possible, Styx is clearly a love letter written to classic computer stealth games of old. It’s written with as much flourish and eloquence as a dollar-store fountain pen can provide.

Score: 4.5/5


Cyanide’s fantasy games tend to be a bit hit and miss for me, and although their heart is in the right place, their games tend to miss more often than they hit, overall. Fortunately, Styx: Master of Shadows seems to be the exception to the rule. Their latest attempt is a third-person stealth game—a loose prequel to Of Orcs And Men—that harkens back to the days of the old Thief franchise, when stealth games were hard, and a single mistake could cost you your life.

The first thing that I noticed is how original the game’s universe seems. The very fact that you take control of a goblin is in and of itself incredibly non-cliché. And the characters, locations, and events you encounter rarely fit into any sort of overly stereotypical category. It’s a refreshing change of pace for a fantasy game. The level design is generally quite open, the various mechanics work well for the most part, and the story is interesting even if some of the voice acting is questionable. Being a Cyanide game, however, it’s not quite without its issues, the most glaring of which is the combat. Similar to Garrett of the Thief franchise, Styx isn’t a very capable fighter. When you engage in combat, you’re locked in a duel with a single enemy. After parrying his attacks a number of times, you’re able to go in for the kill. While you two are duking it out, other enemies can join in and stab you in the back. Eleven times out of ten, this will lead to your death.

Now, that’s not a problem in and of itself; it actually makes sense, as Styx is significantly smaller than most of his opponents. Just avoid combat then, right? Well, that’s the issue. If you get too close to alerted enemies, you will automatically be forced into combat, with no way of escaping. For a game that actively encourages you to stick to the shadows and avoid direct confrontation, it’s an extremely illogical and occasionally infuriating design choice to lock the player into combat in this manner. Luckily, the quick-save feature helps keep the tedium from building up too much, and in the end it’s more of a minor nuisance rather than a game-breaking problem. Beyond that, Styx is a competent stealth game that manages to compete with big budget contemporaries—and it’s sold at half the price. If you’ve been on the hunt for another hardcore stealth game, then you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck with Styx: Master of Shadows. It is, funnily enough, a lot better than the game it’s supposed to be a prequel to.

Score: 4/5
Comments (1)
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I like it when we have a consensus among reviewers. It shows the real quality of a game. But, truth be told, I also like it when we have wildly divergent scores too. Because it shows that tastes are relative