Gold Standard #2: Styx: Master of Shadows (Xbox One, 15FEB – 15MAR)

Styx: Master of Shadows is a game that, I’ll admit, I never picked up when it was released because I thought it had something to do with Warcraft lore. Still, when it popped up for Games with Gold I figured I would give it a look. The experience was part challenging and part excruciating, mind-numbing grind.
Styx‘s opening suffers from a serious case of what I call “scenery fugue,” which is when the title screen and opening menu portray a different world from where the game starts. The title menu features a massive medieval city skyline before panning down to Styx, who is perched on a ledge. The opening cutscene features airships, a sprawling city, and a wide world. The game, however, starts you off in a dungeon. Two sections of the prologue later you see the sky, but I spent those two sections – which took much longer than I am willing to admit – dreading that the game would take place entirely underground. To be stuck below a wonderful steampunk world would have frustrated me to no end, and I would have uninstalled the game before finishing the prologue if I had not seen the sky.

As is my custom after starting a game, I dove into the settings. The difficulty options are pretty straightforward, but there is a humongous curve upwards on the hardest mode, in which enemies are hyper-attentive to their surroundings and any attack will kill instantly kill Styx. Other settings include the ability to remove some HUD features, such as the destination and objective markers (which I highly recommend if you are the type who loves to explore, because the levels in Styx are enormous). What I wish I would have seen sooner (and I really should have because it is right there in the pause menu) is the option to save the game manually. Styx: Master of Shadows does include auto-saves, but they are abysmally few and heinously far-between, and I had multiple instances of losing half-an-hour or more of gameplay upon dying. The game then turned into a saving-fest — I would make a decision, even if it was something as innocuous as moving around a corner, and then save as soon as I knew that I was safe. The constant saving both slowed the experience and made it a horrible, horrible grind, even on “easy” mode.

And that is just the first gripe I have with this Styx: Master of Shadows, which is unfortunate because the stealth-driven gameplay has so much potential. Styx is absolutely useless in fights, which are basic quick-time events – press the X-button to parry/kill your opponent when the button lights up on-screen. Simple as that. The game hints that in a fight you can use the right bumper to roll and dodge attacks, but there is no advantage to this. Additionally, if you try to dodge-roll away from a fight, you will likely be hit and then locked back into quick-time combat again, allowing for more enemies to surround you and pummel you to death.

Thirdly, edge-detection is not what it should be, considering being stealthy in Styx generally requires that you be by some form of edge (as dangling from said edges is a clutch way to hide). While this is not a constant problem, it occurred frequently enough to be bothersome and eventually I found myself with another reason to save constantly lest I try to cling to an edge, fall to my death, and lose progress.

My last real complaint is a small one – the roabies: blind mutated roaches with super hearing. With how original the game’s setting felt, “mutated bugs” was a jarring cliché. While they do provide a satisfying level of creepy tension, especially when you can hear every little noise they make in surround-sound Astro A50s, the game designers could have done something much different with the “amber mutation” plot point. In a stealth game where so much depends on being silent and unseen, an enemy type that can’t see you but can hear literally everything is an excellent twist and an excellent challenge, but why did it have to be a giant bug?

Even so, the game does stealth well. True to the game’s name, Styx relies heavily on the use of shadows to successfully travel from point A to point B, but whereas in other games the shadows would provide perfect cover, they more realistically provide just a shade of help in The Master of Shadows. Guards, normally, will see Styx from a decent distance. Shadows, then, limit that distance. Guards will still see you in the shadows if you are close enough, especially if you are moving, thus making a good hiding place in the dark more suited to planning your next move instead of actually being your next move. Adjusting to this took some time, but in the end it allowed gameplay to be a much more satisfying challenge.

Overall, Styx: The Master of Shadows is a decent game. It is not bad, it is not great, but it is decent and the stealth mechanics make up for the abysmal combat system. If you have zero dollars to spend and enjoy a game that requires a lot of patience, a high attention to detail, and if you don’t mind a hefty amount of trial-and-error, then I definitely recommend this title. With that said, if you are currently wrapped up in other games that you enjoy, you may as well take a pass. It is not a game that can be enjoyed in short spurts and will just take up space on your hard drive.

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