Developing feelings of frustration while playing a game is not uncommon. Maybe there are annoying objectives to complete, certain sections filled with overwhelmingly difficult enemies, or perhaps it’s just that you can’t pull it off even though you know damn well you should be able to. No matter what the cause, the best case scenario is finally getting through it and replacing that feeling of frustration with a sense of accomplishment. However, when frustration takes hold and lingers throughout the game, it can ruin the experience entirely. Unfortunately that is the case in Styx: Master of Shadows
. Despite great mechanics which could have created a memorable stealth-oriented game, many points along the way induce frustration that remains constant throughout. Styx: Master of Shadows
serves as a prequel to Cyanide’s 2012 game, Of Orcs and Men
. The game’s main protagonist, a Goblin named Styx, is noted as being two centuries old, and the very first of all Goblins; he is also one of the main characters in Of Orcs and Men
. Styx is as callous and raw as you would expect of a traditional Goblin, with plenty of profanities throughout the game. He is also quite prone - as are all of the other characters - to pretty corny dialogue. If Styx isn’t busy complaining about his headache, then he’s probably crafting an insult that mirrors those of Paul Rudd’s character in I Love You, Man
. The game’s story centers on Styx’s journey to the World Tree to discover more about his origins, but the corniness of the dialogue diverts from following along too closely. Master of Shadows
is predominantly a stealth game. Being that Styx is at least two feet shorter than the various humans, elves, and orcs he will come across, the game suggests sticking to the shadows whenever possible. Unlike the lacking visual appearance of the game’s characters, the world that is presented in the eight different levels (introduction included) are absolutely marvelous and large in size, with a dark, grimy layer that feels befitting to the setting. The game plays out in a vertical fashion, giving players several different floors to choose from to proceed forward. Oftentimes a path that is heavily guarded does not have to be taken head on, because extra reconnaissance of the area will often reveal alternate paths. However, this isn’t always the case. On a few occasions it felt as if a path was just never completed, such as following a series of ledges only to come to an abrupt end with nowhere to go. These paths were either to trick the player, or actually did proceed on with very unapparent next steps.
Performing aerial kills on unsuspecting foes is one of many skills that can be unlocked
In order to actually traverse from place to place unnoticed, there are several stealth mechanics to take advantage of. Everyone familiar with stealth games should know the system on a very basic level: sneak behind enemies, quietly kill them, and hide the body, but there are methods to make things easier. The game is, of course, not entirely darkened and you’ll have to take care of that to remain in the shadows. Torches scattered throughout the levels can be snuffed out manually, or hit with balls of sand that can be thrown from a safe distance. Chandeliers, on the other hand, can be unfastened to send them hurtling to the ground, which not only removes the light source, but also can kill guards underneath it, including knights which cannot be killed by normal dagger-stabbing means. However, there are quite a number of torches, fires, and other light-emitting sources that cannot be put out, which means you won’t always be able to run around in totally blackened out areas. Removing light sources also doubles as a way to attract enemies’ attention as they move dynamically to what is happening around them.
While removing light sources may be more of an established mechanic in stealth games, Master of Shadows
’ cloning system presents a unique addition. Styx can create cloned versions of himself to assist with his surroundings. These clones can be used as simply as running out in the open to draw attention or for more direct confrontational means. Clones can bind an enemy for a limited time to allow you to kill them with ease, they can hide in boxes and ambush enemies as they pass, or they can set off smoke bombs to stun large groups of enemies. These clones represent a very strategic option to use, and more often than not, using them to run around and create diversions was the way to go. However, it was disappointing to not be able to utilize these abilities more often. This was due to the fact that Amber, the substance used to create clones and use Styx’s other abilities like Amber Vision (think Eagle Vision in Assassin’s Creed
) and invisibility, was in limited supply throughout the entire game. In fact all useful items such as Amber, Vials of Life (health), and throwing knives were very hard to come by at all. Put that together with the fact that you can only carry a maximum of three of each item (after upgrading the skill) and it becomes an onerous disadvantage while playing.
That feeling of being at a disadvantage, along with limited items to aid you, is what ultimately fuels frustration throughout the game. Even the upgradable skills feel like they have little impact in aiding you at times. Master of Shadows
includes RPG elements, allowing upgrades to Styx's arsenal using points you gain while playing. These points are earned, on a larger scope, by finishing levels, and on a smaller scope, by completing both main and secondary objectives. The most useful of the skills were those that allowed Styx to perform aerial kills and to kill from around corners, and those regarding invisibility. Yet any skill that relies on Amber falls into the problem of the lack of Amber to be had. It would have been nice to use the skills more and see how they could be used in tandem with other stealth techniques, but it just wasn't possible seeing as how using one or two skills completely drains your Amber. Once you are out of Amber and refills, many significant skills become pointless to have and remain that way for most of the level.
With all things considered, the main complaint comes down to the reality that the game is just, at times, overwhelmingly difficult to play through. Ultimately some players will be able to breeze though the game, but many others will come to feel the same frustrations. This review was originally based on a playthrough on the "Normal" difficulty, but after a mere few hours was changed to "Easy" as a last resort to finally get through an area. Any hope that this would make the game more manageable, whether through more resources, fewer enemies to contend with, etc. were dashed as the change in difficulty was barely apparent. I have never before experienced a game where I have died hundreds of times (not an exaggeration) on the easiest difficulty. The frustration of deaths becomes that much more punitive when taken into consideration with the game’s checkpoints that are also spread out an excessive amount. The need to manually save thus becomes that much more important.
Many areas are filled with multiple alternate paths to take. Getting to them, however, can be an issue
The difficulty comes from the fact that you are faced with an incredible amount of enemies numerous times, while in a very open area, with little to no supplies. Despite being on "Easy", if you are detected with a large group of enemies around you, there is a good chance you’re going to die. Timed parry attacks are your only defense while dueling an opponent in the open, and mixed with having throwing knives chucked at you by other opponents, it becomes apparent you really are supposed to stay in the shadows at all times. This is perfectly summed up with the battle at the finale of the game, which ironically had absolutely nothing to do with stealth. The player has to fight two waves of three enemies each, but you do so with whatever resources that you happen to have. That means if you are low on health, have no Amber, and have no throwing knives, don’t expect to find any in the “arena” or just before that, because they probably aren't there.
In terms of achievements, the game has a rather standard spread. There are the eight story progression achievements tied to the different levels. There are several achievements tied to using your clones, including to create 30
, let 15 of them die
, and even feed one to an orc
. Three achievements in particular will probably take a while to get. My precious
requires you to collect all treasures, which is usually 30 to 40 per level. Great power…
requires you to unlock all skills, which will probably take going back and replaying levels to obtain more points. Lastly Unseen, unknown
requires you to unlock the Shadow Insignia for every level, which means alerting no enemies.
Styx: Master of Shadows has many things going right for it in terms of the stealth-based gameplay it provides. Among the best of the mechanics are the clones which really bring a unique perspective to this genre. The level designs are among the best parts of the game, and their size and the choices given to the player are something that should be mimicked in other games. However, the amount of enemies compiled with lack of helpful items made the game frustratingly punishing even on the easier difficulties, and proved to sour the experience from being even better. In no game do you ever want to feel as if the amount of time spent on loading and save screens matches that of actual playtime. For those players who don't find the game dificult, there is a "Goblin Mode" difficulty which allows enemies to detect you quicker, kill you in one hit, and you leaves you unable to parry their attacks. If you plan to play through this mode, I wish you the best of luck with it; you'll need it.
The reviewer spent 17 hours playing through the story, and an additional hour playing the Goblin Mode difficulty. Along the way, 28 of the 33 achievements in the game were unlocked. This Xbox One copy of the game was provided courtesy of the the game's public relations firm.