The Tower of Akenash, a beautifully realized and vertically designed structure, houses the best of Lord Barimen’s noble soldiers and one pesky, sneaky, and murderous green goblin: Styx.
This valiant act of intrusion carries with it the mission to steal the Heart of the World Tree for reasons unknown. In order to pull off such a grand heist, Styx will have to tunnel through creepy crawl holes, hide underneath large wooden tables, sneak inside oversized metal chests, jump on ledges and chandeliers, but most importantly, utilize his powers of Amber.
Styx: Master of Shadows is Cyanide Studio’s latest infiltration-based stealth title that follows the story of the little green goblin, Styx, as he sneaks his way through eight massive open-world missions all in an attempt to steal that which isn’t his. While the narrative delivers a compelling storyline filled with an intriguing twist about half-way through, the game truly shines when it comes to its gameplay mechanics and of course, the lead character.
Unlike most stealth titles today, Styx: Master of Shadows delivers a truly immersive stealth experience that cannot be tackled with an action-oriented mindset. As a foul-mouthed goblin, the guards and other residents inside the Tower of Akenash will unleash combat with unrelenting force upon seeing Styx sneaking his way through the tight corridors and overly large rooms inside Lord Barimen’s Tower.
Although Styx is a nasty murderer himself, tackling these combat encounters head-on will almost always result in immediate death. Whether it’s being pelted by throwing knives or crossbow arrows from afar or taking the blade of a sword to the face, one-hit kills are imminent for Styx.
What can be done to correct such errors is simple: run! Styx is fast on his feet and small, allowing him to roll away from enemy attacks and hide underneath crawl spaces. At other times, jumping onto ledges and other tall objects is a useful escape mechanism. It seems that if the guards inside the Tower of Akenash cannot see the threat, then there’s no need to worry.
This may seem like an inconsistent act in AI behavior, but don’t be fooled; the AI are smarter than ever, even when playing on the game’s easiest difficulty setting. If you aren’t quick enough to escape your enemy’s attacks, you will be automatically locked into duel. The only way out is killing your opponent by following on-screen button prompts. This quick-time event feels misplaced in a game such as this, though you’ll soon find that finding yourself in this unfortunate situation will only ever be your own fault.
The enemies Styx encounters inside the Tower of Akenash are not all standard infantrymen, however. Cyanide succeeds in crafting a collection of unique, varied enemy types that all react to Styx’s presence differently. For example, other than your traditional solider, there’s Crossbowmen who can kill Styx in one shot (two shots on easy). On the other hand, there are Knights who will kill Styx with a single swing of their swords and who can only be killed by standing underneath a fallen object, such as a chandelier.
Inquisitors are even more dangerous, as they hold the ability to cast a “stationary” spell on Styx, disabling the goblin’s movements and counterattacks. Lastly, Elves are majestic foes who have keen perception of Styx’s presence at all times – even when out of their field of view – and can kill the goblin with a single swing of their staffs
Overall, the game’s manual save feature will aid in correcting errors when detected if players takes the time to create a manual save before tacking a room full of enemy guards. In order to help players gauge a sense stealth, the tattoos on Styx’s shoulder and back will emit a bright orange glow when you are hidden in the shadows. What’s more, the ability to lean against cover and hang off the side of ledges allows Styx to remain undetected while surveying the areas ahead or above. In addition to this, Styx’s powers of Amber offer three distinct abilities that lend a hand in approaching specific encounters without the need of bloodshed or detection.
First, there’s Amber Vision which acts as a form of thermal goggles or night vision goggles – take your pick. Amber Vision will help highlight enemies within the area, as well as objects that can be used as hiding spots. Second, there’s Cloning, an ability that is entirely unique to this stealth experience. A quick combination of button clicks will cause Styx to vomit an egg which immediately hatches into a goblin clone. These clones are extremely useful in reaching inaccessible areas and even distracting guards by jumping on their face, emitting a repulsive gurgling scream, or deteriorating into a thick smoke cloud. Lastly, the final Amber ability is Invisibility. Evident by its name, this power allows Styx to become invisible for a limited time which becomes invaluable when sneaking past stationed guards or when there are no shadows to utilize as cover. All in all, these three abilities will change the way traditional stealth mechanics are presented, though take notice that each power eats away at your Amber gauge – a meter that acts similarly to a mana bar.
As if Styx’s Amber abilities weren’t enough to convince players of the goblin’s deadliness, the game also features seven distinct talent trees – each with four skills – that alter Styx’ capabilities throughout the narrative. After completing a mission, you’ll soon return to your underground hideout where the skill book can be accessed. Here, you can utilize your hard-earned Skill Points to unlock unique abilities such as increasing the carrying capacity for throwing knives and vials of amber, allowing Styx to perform corner takedowns and aerial takedowns, remaining invisible when controlling a clone, doubling the duration of Amber Vision, and more. In order to obtain these aforementioned Skill Points however, you’ll have to complete each mission and their side objectives, as well as earn the four different insignias present in each of the game’s eight missions: Insignia of the Shadow, Insignia of Mercy, Insignia of Swiftness, and Insignia of the Thief.
To even the most experienced stealth gamer, these insignias will prove to be a burden in obtaining, as they task you with completing the entire mission without any alerts, completing the entire mission without any kills, completing the entire mission under the allotted time – which is usually twenty-five minutes – and collecting all token collectibles within a mission.
The only downside in attempting to obtain all twenty-eight skills within the game is that players will be forced to obtain every insignia and complete every single side objective in a mission. On the surface, this seems entirely doable and enjoyable given the game’s brilliant stealth mechanics; however needing to play each mission a minimum of two – maybe three – times becomes a massive chore just to unlock the most expansive skills in the predator talent tree.
But where replaying missions two and three times may seem daunting, Cyanide has crafted the levels in an open-world concept, allowing for multiple paths to be taken in order to reach the main objective. Upon your second playthrough of the narrative, you’ll soon find that crawling underneath that desk reveals a hidden crawl space that leads to your objective much faster than using the metal fixtures on the wall to climb unto the ledges that wrap around the room.
Where the game excels in its open-world design, a sense of disappointment lingers in the air during the fourth mission when players are essentially forced to backtrack through all previous environments for the remaining missions of the game. While in theory it works, given the twist at the game’s narrative midpoint, revisiting the same environments becomes a drag given the fact that players would have already fully explored a mission the first time, thus leaving little room for imagination and improvisation when navigating these environments again.
Fortunately, Styx: Master of Shadows delivers an intriguing storyline and satisfying stealth mechanics that can overlook the small faults of recycled mission environments and the occasional hiccup in controls when it comes to platforming. While I often time found myself restarting checkpoints due to deaths caused by spotty edge detection when jumping from one wooden beam to another, I was rarely ever frustrated enough to turn my attention away from Styx’s adventure through the Tower of Akenash.
Cyanide Studio has crafted a unique stealth title within Styx: Master of Shadows. The green goblin is a character you’ll love to hate, and as cliché as it sounds, hate to love. While action-oriented approaches towards enemy encounters is never the proper path to take, hardcore fans of an immersive and challenging stealth experience will find comfort in the game’s twelve-to-fifteen-hour narrative.