Back in my twenties, my favorite night club in town was Boogie Fever; a 70s/80s themed joint with a lit-up dance floor that was always packed wall-to-wall. Their music was dated, but classic, and this brought an endless ocean of ladies with a median age slightly above my own. The 2:1 female to male ratio wasn’t terrible either, and many of them were on the prowl. Alas, though Boogie Fever generated many an eventful night for me, I always remembered the list of rules you read as they carded you and you entered the club. The first never failed to get my attention: “No push-up bras – they’re false advertising!” As a male, it’s pretty hard to disagree with that statement.
As a life-long gamer, though, the push-up bra of the gaming world has always been the cinematic trailer. Marvelous effort is put into the production of these ‘glimpses’ of the game, as studios vie for your time and money. Scores of animators with live orchestras toil over dramatized bits of lore to get you hooked on the story. Then, once the intro video completes, the bra comes off, and what’s present doesn’t match up with what was presented. But hey, in both cases, by this point at least you get to play, right?! (Pro tip: Don’t look shocked)
One of the most memorable examples of such letdowns was World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King. I remember standing in line outside of Best Buy to get my copy at midnight. I remember coming home, loading in the DVD and waiting forever for it to install. Then, the glorious cinematic trailer played, and I was in love. I didn’t want it to end, yet I couldn’t wait for it to finish so I could dive into this new, magical world of Northrend. Little did I know, nothing changed, except everything was now called “frost this,” or “frost that”. A total washout.
We humans are creatures of second chances, though. Perhaps we’re gluttons for punishment, perhaps it’s naiveté and hardheadedness. I am both of those things. The trailer for Styx: Shards of Darkness (SSoD) impressed me, and left me desirous to see what was under that sweater, fake or not.
As it turns out, the game is as supple as I had hoped, and it did not disappoint.
Though my exposure to the stealth genre is reasonably nascent, that’s not deliberate. For some time, my main WoW toon was a rogue (Hey! Don’t judge me, you pally). Plus, when it comes to FPS, I almost always roll the camper... er… sniper. Little did I know that there was a stealth game out there that would combine patience, puzzle solving, and a potty-mouth sense of humor.
SSoD immediately greets you with exquisitely mastered sound. Being a snobby audiophile, I like when devs pay attention to the sound quality, and it’s perfectly balanced here. Typically, I disable or turn down many audio options, but with SSoD I find myself leaving all the levels stock, which is odd, but so clearly the right choice. As the game loads, the opening cinematic scenes begin. I cross my fingers and hope that my gaming hopes won’t be dashed. As the scenes complete, there’s a smooth transition to the first level of the game, and I’m not at all disappointed.
The controls are simple at first, yet I still feel a challenge, things to learn, room to grow: refreshing. Many titles leave the introductory section so simple that you feel coddled and can’t wait for it to be over. Yet, I’m not afraid to say, I died a few times and actually had to try in SSoD. Each time I died, the protagonist had some quip to share, like a middle-finger-salute while saying “I’ll be back!” Funny at first, not so much if you’re stuck on a particular part and keep getting salt poured in the wound. Honestly, the biggest adjustment for me was that pressing shift wasn’t sprint, but rather: extra-slow creepin’.
It’s a STEALTH game, you dummy!
The overall world design is impressive and commendable. I’ve been around the block a few times, and many games still seem so two-dimensional when you’re in them. Even though you can look around, you’re always mostly on the same plane. SSoD has you exploring in absolutely every which way for your next move. You may think you’re stuck, but did you look straight up and behind you?! Didn’t think so! Frankly, the deeper I got into the game, the more I felt like this was a 3D-puzzle game. Sure, I had to sneak around and stab a few plebs in the back, but at the end of the day, each phase I encountered required its own unique solution.
Throughout the game, the story still persists. NPCs provide colorful commentary, and inner monologues are well written and intriguing. There is no lack of profanity in-game, which speaks to some level of realism. If someone extinguished a torch next to me and then tried to stab me in the back, I would more than likely not censor my speech, even if surrounded by impressionable youth while attending a sermon in St. Peter’s Square.
Cyanide Studio also delivers on a balanced, compelling progression system. You’re able to amass skill points to spend on the specialization of your choice, many of which are visibly unique and not just some ‘+1% DMG’ junk. One hundred fifty points to jump down from above and execute an aerial finishing move? Yes, please! Back at base, you’re also able to switch weapons and clothes to tailor to the specialization you’ve chosen. Much like in real life, when you say “Yes” to something, you’re saying “No” to something else: each weapon or cloak choice buffs your chosen skill, but also nerfs something else.
The crafting element, however, is uninspired. It’s just… there. I would have been just as pleased finding random items to use hidden about the game, rather than collecting silly stones here-and-there only to waste time and combine them at a crafting table. Now, I believe in finite resources and the challenge therein, but this piece just seemed underdeveloped, not acclimatized.
There were a few other letdowns that left me contemplating my newly developed love for SSoD. For example, the animation sync in both the cinematic cut scenes and in real-time gaming, specifically for facial movement, is noticeably off. The game in its entirety seems very well developed, so I would have hoped someone noticed this and addressed it to give the title that final polish that it deserved. Also, combat sucks, but perhaps it was specifically an afterthought. I mean, you’re really not supposed to engage in combat; it’s a stealth game, dummy! When it does happen, because noobs like me just want to shank-shank-backstab (rogue flashbacks), it’s just not there.
Again, a tiny bit of effort to polish up the user experience would have gone a long way, because noobs will be noobs.
Just when you think some issues would dissuade you from playing this game, you find out that you can puke in someone’s water bucket to poison them. Also, you can clone yourself by puking. It’s almost as though you secretly sneak Jägermeister shots when you’re hiding in the shadows, except the puke is green, not black. Add to that medals for Swiftness (speed, clearly), Shadow (how many times you’ve triggered an alert, run to a safe space!), Mercy (don’t kill people, it’s bad), and Theft (stealing some tokens), and the game redeems itself in my eyes, and for those who are achievement junkies.
8. A solid 8, mind you. Styx: Shards of Darkness has renewed my trust in the game trailer once again. After removing the plush padding of the cinematic trailer, I wasn’t disappointed by what I saw in the actual gameplay. On the contrary, I was welcomed by a well-rounded stealth puzzler that I plan on playing (with) for quite some time into the future. The writing and story are novel and hilarious, which gives this title a firm lead in an otherwise dark and quiet genre. I’ve already enthusiastically flashed clips over to my friends, and I can’t wait to find someone to play co-op with (DM me!).