- Levels feature lots of verticality
- Multiple viable paths from A to B
- Finicky controls
- Corny fantasy lore
This ultra-hard stealth game kind of feels like it came out ten years ago, but in a good way.
Any mechanical keyboard using Cherry MX switches ensures each key can be pressed over 50 million times. That’s good, because I played Styx: Master of Shadows this week and I definitely cut into my keyboard’s lifespan by tapping F5 to quicksave approximately every five seconds.
Walk down a hallway. Save. Clamber onto the top of a cabinet, then hop onto a roofing beam. Save. Creep across the beam. Save. Hop down to the floor. “Hey you!” yells a guard. Damn it. Load. Hop down to a different spot. “Hey you!” Mother of— Load. Wait two seconds. Leap past where I now think the guard is. Land behind him. Too much noise. “A monster!” Load. Leap. Land. Kill guard. Save.
50 million key presses might not be enough.
Do you speak lore?
I expect your opinion of the third-person stealth game Styx: Master of Shadows will rest rather heavily on your opinion of the older Thief games and others in that vein. Though brand new, Styx is at turns both delightfully and frustratingly old-school in its approach.
You play as the titular Styx, a goblin thief in a world of just-give-us-an-excuse-to-fight-each-other humans and elves. Styx is trying to steal the “Heart of a World-Tree” which is responsible for creating “Amber” in the “Tower of Akenash.” Don’t worry—there’s a lot more borderline-impenetrable lore where that came from!
As you might guess, the heart of a world-tree is fairly well-guarded—so well-guarded that the secrets of where it’s kept and how it’s guarded are really only known to two or three people. It’s the type of score that would make the cast of Ocean’s Eleven hang it up.
Styx is quite a bit more nimble than George Clooney, though, and this is the game’s greatest strong-suit. Master of Shadows is a return to what most people cite when they bring up those old Thief games: truly open environments.
Levels in Master of Shadows are enormous, mostly in terms of verticality. They don’t call it the Tower of Akenash for nothing. Each level has an entry and an exit, but how you get between those two points is as open-ended as I’ve seen in a stealth game ever. You could take the most obvious route, but that’s rarely the most efficient way if you’re trying to pass unseen. Instead, the whole tower is dotted with secret rooms, hidden passages, balconies, perches, and ledges to grab onto—it’s essentially an enormous jungle gym for thieves. And Styx, as a goblin a.k.a. a-creature-that-can-jump-extraordinarily-well, is perfectly suited to Prince of Persia his way around the tower.
Styx is a game for only the most hardcore of stealth fans. I played on Normal difficulty and even so, each level was absolutely brutal if you’re trying to remain unseen. It’s a constant war between trying to make forward progress and trying to find a path that bypasses most of the enemies—or at least one where you can sneak up from behind and murder
a few a lot of most of the guards.
And to make things worse, if you’re one of those people (like myself) who just has to snag every collectible in a game then Styx: Master of Shadows is going to break you. It took me two hours to finish what I later realized was considered the Prologue. Two. Hours. There are seven chapters in Styx, each of which is broken into three or four gigantic sub-levels. Each sub-level has ten collectible tokens scattered around the most inconvenient, inaccessible, well-guarded parts of the map—they’re less “mandatory” areas and more puzzle boxes designed just to challenge the people who want those tokens.
While you could conceivably finish some of these chapters in as little as half an hour (according to the game’s own internal achievements), it’s unlikely without some practice or luck or both. The only downside is that quite a few environments are reused in the second half of the game, leaving the back half feeling a lot less fresh than the first half.
The game gives you a few advantages, all of which center around the aforementioned “amber.” You can turn invisible briefly, highlight hidden items in the environment with Amber Vision, or create a clone of yourself. That last skill turns out to be crucial, as your clone can distract guards away from your position or activate levers you can’t reach.
The problem is that using your skills ends up feeling a bit like cheating, even though it’s not. You’re rarely encouraged to use your powers, except when the game forces you to—and then it just feels annoying to be forced. The game has a bad habit of being very open, and then throwing you into a chokepoint halfway through the level where the only way past is to turn invisible or sacrifice a clone to the guards. But why is there a chokepoint in the first place? It feels anathema to the game’s “go anywhere” philosophy.
There are also some issues that relegate this to B-game status. Pathfinding is particularly broken. There are a lot of instances where you’ll watch two guards approach each other, then walk into each other, then do a weird diagonal walk-dance until they magically unhook and continue on their patrol routes. Another obnoxious bug: If you quicksave next to a sleeping guard, when you reload the guard will nearly always wake up and spot you immediately.
And the controls are finicky, with Styx sometimes grabbing onto a ledge when you meant for him to fall to the floor but then not grabbing the ledge when you just walked off a cliff, or not grabbing onto a balcony after a jump unless you jump exactly right. Even after hours of playing, I didn’t feel like I could 100 percent judge whether it was possible for me to make a jump or not, which is life or death in a stealth game.
Look past the smattering of issues, though, and there’s a solid (and very hard) stealth game here.
Surprisingly, the game I found myself thinking of most while playing Styx was Beyond Good & Evil. Maybe it’s Styx himself, the silly mascot-like hero of the story, who apart from the constant swearing seems like a holdover from a bygone period of video games. Maybe it’s the graphics which, while they accomplish things you could never accomplish on PS2-era hardware, still seem somehow like a cartoonish throwback to that time (especially the faces, which are universally awkward). Maybe it’s the feeling of “If you get seen, you might as well start over because combat is terrible”—that’s certainly an issue in Styx, since the combat is nearly unplayable and you’re better off just reloading the game.
Regardless, Styx: Master of Shadows feels like a stealth game from ten years ago. That is to say, it feels like a modern stealth game but a little less polished, a little less forgiving, and a lot more open. That’s fine in my book, but it’s also something I could see frustrating a lot of people.
Keep your F5 finger handy.