A challenging stealth adventure with just as much snark as it has sneaking.
Styx the goblin tells some utterly awful jokes, with one of the tamest (and lamest) sounding off straight after an accidental death where he pops up on the loading screen and asks, “Is that a controller in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” I can forgive it, though. After all, he’s the only member of his race who’s intelligent enough to speak and make stale Assassin’s Creed and Terminator references, and he thus really has no one else to tell him how corny he sounds. That, and he’s an amazing thief and assassin whose shadowy neck-breaking skills more than make up for its occasional bad pun. The whole of Styx: Shards of Darkness is a little like that: an eye roll one moment, and welcome suspense and stealthy action the next.
For such an ugly little squatter, Styx lives in an attractive world. The broad strokes – a world filled with elves, dwarves, and humans – resemble classic J.R.R.Tolkien, but the fantasy universe developer Cyanide Studios presents here is a dark one suited to a game so drenched in shadows. Styx might wisecrack a lot (including some which I’ll admit are genuinely funny), but it almost comes off as a defense mechanism in this cruel world with duplicitous shapeshifters and bloody elven rituals meant to appease giant millipedes worshiped as gods.
Styx’s fourth-wall-breaking humor resembles a small green Deadpool.
Some folks will hate him and his foul-mouthed Family Guy-caliber quips, but I love him. In cutscenes and in fourth-wall breaking remarks he comes off as the only person who’s really getting the joke, kind of like a small green Deadpool. He’s a weirdly appealing foil to all the dour folks around him, all of whom are trying to swindle each other for control of the precious amber so much of this world – including stealth abilities – runs on. None of the characters are particularly awful, but Styx himself is so wonderfully far ahead of them in terms of characterization, voice acting, animation, and humor that just listening to the audio feels a bit like listening to a Mystery Science Theater 3000 viewing of a straight-faced film.
A fairly decent story follows Styx through nine missions over roughly 15 hours as he buddies up with a group that’s nominally committed to the eradication of his race and quickly leads down deeper rabbit holes. Sometimes Shards of Darkness introduces a humorous mission, such as when Styx needs to haul a drunken captain to his ship, but most of the time the tale itself is full of weighty themes that might not be apparent from all the snark rampant in the trailers.
Cyanide, unfortunately, doesn’t use this rich setting to its full potential. The opening hours present exploratory wonders of vertical design, complete with Styx shimmying and grappling his away over the rooftops and under the boardwalks of majestic steampunk airships, shabby fishing villages, and gloomy dark elven cities burrowed into peaks. It’s a shame the fumbly act of jumping from ledge to ledge in midair comes off as one of Shards of Darkness’ weak points, to say nothing of the awfulness of swinging from a rope, but it’s doable. These are lovingly designed levels that take hours to explore fully, and they’re stuffed with chests, wardrobes, and baskets for Styx to hide in and alarms to boobytrap. Puzzles requiring memories of earlier cutscenes sometimes deliver awesome new daggers, and trials test Styx’s reflexes.
But about halfway through, after Styx has to face down a tough boss with environmental targets that demand the expert use of your avoidance reflexes and knowledge of his abilities, Shards of Darkness essentially starts to recycle the earlier levels. Sometimes Styx will gain access to a section that wasn’t available the first time around, but for the most part, the only differences are the introduction of new foes like armored enemies who can’t be killed by a dagger or dwarves who can sniff out the smelly Styx if he creeps too close.
The Gollum-like sneaking is the best thing about Shards of Darkness.
I usually enjoyed revisiting those locations, though, in part because I find Shards of Darkness’ stealth gameplay so appealing. The vertical levels and multiple approaches to assassination suggest a marriage of Assassin’s Creed and Hitman, although Styx’s tiny, slimy frame allows Shards to craft an identity of its own. The Gollum-like sneaking is the best thing about Shards of Darkness, as it allows our green friend to dart under tables and jump into crannies where his adversaries cannot follow. But it’s the secondary abilities where the true fun comes in, and they’re unlocked by accumulating points by completing multiple objectives or, say, finishing a level without killing anyone or raising an alarm. They’re often lifesavers, as Shards of Darkness presents Styx with new dangers at almost every corner.
And yet it’s rarely unfair. Styx always has the tools for victory, and they’re delightfully unhygienic. He can barf out and take control of a clone of himself while he stays safely far away, and he can poison guards by spewing bile in their water or food. He can also turn invisible in a tight spot, but it’s such a massive, quick drain on the precious amber resource used for many of Styx’s powers that it rarely feels overpowered. You can also craft weapons, including helpful traps that take out armored guards, darts that provide some ranged attacks, or lockpicks that help minimize the snooping around for a hidden entrance. The materials for these, though, are all a little rare – that has the nice effect of making sure you never lose sight of the need to stay truly stealthy.
Sometimes, though, Styx may have to fight if he’s spotted. That’s never been a strong point of this series, but the glorious thing about Shards of Darkness compared to Master of Shadows is that it doesn’t lock you into combat. As before, these fights are mostly a case of waiting to parry against a guard three times your size at the right time, and if you miss, you’re dead. (Deaths then triggers one of those many, many hit-or-miss loading-screen taunts.) In Shards of Darkness, Styx is free to say “to hell with it” and leave combat by scurrying into shadows without worrying about the camera deciding not to follow him, allowing him time to find another hole to hide in under the alert dies off.
As modern stealth games go, Styx is on the harder side (in a good way).
Shards of Darkness constantly emphasizes that fighting should only be a last, desperate resort. The most action your blade will see is from slitting the throats of guards from behind, and that’s only if you want to – but dropping some bodies sure makes things easier. As modern stealth games go, Styx is on the harder side (in a good way, at least if you appreciate pure stealth), and the ability to save at any time feels almost like a divine blessing as the automatic checkpoints are laughably far apart. The varied mission requirements also do a fine job of keeping the experience fresh, as they sometimes force Styx to stay stealthy without triggering an alarm or to make his way through a hostile dungeon in nothing but his underwear. Fortunately, these challenges don’t present themselves until you’ve had ample opportunity to learn Styx’s dance of stealth and hasty escapes, and by the time they come, you should be ready for them.
Don’t be seen. That’s about it.
It’s a shame the enemies don’t differ much from each other. Shards of Darkness includes everything from drunken pirates to heavily armored elves and burly dwarves, but when fighting them or stealthily killing them, they all play about the same. At least the AI is fairly decent this time around, and I remember being shocked when a knight found me and yanked me out from my hidey hole and skewered me with his sword because I’d been too confident and hadn’t shrunk further back into the darkness when I first hid there. Sometimes I’d catch them bugged and walking in tiny circles or, most annoyingly, I’d see an ogre standing on air when the trap door he was supposed to fall through opened, but for the most part Shards of Darkness requires no tricks to learn the secrets of its stealth. Don’t be seen. That’s about it, and as it should be.
Shards of Darkness also includes a serviceable two-player cooperative mode, but it works better on some missions more than others. In those where Styx just has to stay completely out of sight, another goblin hanging around can be more frustrating than helpful. The mission will end entirely, just because one goblin was seen, and since the co-op mode doesn’t support the ability to save anywhere, it’s a recipe for gnashed teeth rather than good times. In standard missions, though, where one player can toss a glass to distract a guard while the other one runs up and kills him while he’s turned away, it’s immensely rewarding. Even then, though, the animations on the guest goblin seem to shudder a bit, as though they’re being rendered in half the frames per second as the surroundings. It doesn’t ruin the gameplay, but it is a bit distracting.