A few years from now, let’s say 2024, a guy in his mid twenties will Google “what was that awesome game about a swearing goblin who kills people from behind”, and he’ll be directed to Styx: Master of Shadows. You know the kind of game, it never received the mainstream marketing of anything by EA or Activison, but you had so much fun playing it that it stayed with you forever.
If that’s you then welcome, future person. Give our regards to the gracious but fair alien overlords that have no doubt enslaved the human race. Before you go back to work in the mines, let’s talk about the awesome experiences you had creeping through the shadows looking for hilarious ways to troll the NPCs in the game.
Master of Shadows is the prequel to Of Orcs and Men. You take control of the hilariously crude goblin Styx on his quest to reach a magical tree and generally be a dick to anyone he sees – in the most entertaining of ways. A game with such a premise could easily suffer from the ‘trying too hard’ syndrome, but thankfully Styx generally avoids this. It’s thanks in part to pretty solid voice acting, but mostly owing to gameplay mechanics so deliciously twisted that you’re too enthralled to think about anything beyond how to creep around the next corner and leave the guards in a contorted puddle.
Despite multi-platform availability Styx feels like a PC game; one of those understated adventures in a non-linear environment where you’re really in control of what happens. From the very opening you decide exactly how to reach your objective, by sticking to the shadows and choosing when to kill guards and when to leave them baffled as to why an unfortunate ‘accident’ just took out their buddy. When you get it right it’s as hilarious as it is rewarding.
Speaking of hilarity, when I was a young boy my uncle – in an attempt to educate me on the importance of NOT swearing all the time – told me, “A well-placed swearword is f*cking marvelous.” Styx reminds me of that uncle, and that’s a compliment. He throws F Bombs out at just the right moment every time, not just to get a cheap laugh. An example of a game that got this wrong was Bulletstorm – it’s a fine line to tread and Styx does so with the coy precision of a ruthless goblin.
What really makes the game, though, is the AI. They adapt to your actions pretty well, cleverly avoiding being too predictable. You’ll restart a checkpoint thinking you know exactly what to do this time, only for things to get messy all over again. It can be frustrating, but for the patient gamer the rewards are grin-inducingly fun. So many moments in my play-through saw me crouched in a corner, a load of confused and p**sed-off guards scratching their heads behind me, and me saying to myself “I love it when a plan comes together”.
Planning is facilitated by the game’s key power source- amber. Amber lets you enter ‘amber vision’ (akin to Arkham Knight’s detective vision), but it also lets you create a controllable clone of yourself who can be sent ahead into dangerous situations. Your clone can open doors, scout out threats, and (most often) be a handy distraction allowing you to move in and mop up.
Levels are fairly open, with primary and secondary objectives available leaving you to decide just how you want to proceed, similar to the Sniper Elite formula. There doors that have to be unlocked, and a cool mechanic that lets you peer through the keyhole first to make sure everything’s clear.
That’s not all, though. You’ve also got a deep pool of upgrades to tinker with, giving you options to improve your stealth, attack and defensive capabilities. Desptire this Styx stays true to it’s promise to be a stealth game – so even if you rank up your combat you’ll still struggle to run-n-gun (well, run-n-stab). If you’re not a fan of creeping you could find this a bit tedious. Then again, if that’s you then you’re probably pissing on the wrong lamp-post playing Styx in the first place.
Graphically Styx won’t win any awards or blow you away. But that’s not the point; it’s not about pre-rendered set pieces where the particle physics are 4% better than last year’s edition, it’s about using your imagination to engage with the world you see before you.
Our one main criticism of this game is the difficulty curve, it does feel a little unpredictable. Sure it starts off with a no-brainer tutorial mission, but the difficulty seems to spike willy-nilly soon after, before you get fully to grips with all of the aforementioned options for upgrades and interaction with the environment.
Still, there’s nothing better than creeping through the shadows like a Radio 2 DJ near a playground before popping up and shoving a small, stiff object deep into an unsuspecting victim.