It lurks within a barrel; blood dripping from a dagger gripped tight in its green hand. Laid before this green-skinned skulker is a lifeless carcass, stained with the fingerprints of the tiny assassin. Guards still blessed with the gift of life discover this corpse and draw their swords to begin a search. While they search and the killer sidles away a distant pair of watchmen discuss taking hard drugs. What kind of world could have this, you ask? Well that would be the world of Styx: Master of Shadows, the latest sneak ‘em’ up from the team at Cyanide Studios.
The game dumps you with little preparation into the diminutive form of Styx, a resourceful speck of green who is tortured by the voices inside his head. Without delving too deep into the details here – because the story is perhaps one of Styx: Master of Shadow’s defining features – your entire journey through this small world revolves around breaking into various levels of a tower. Not like a serial burglar in a tower block. More like a mischievous rogue trying to put right a wrong.
This rogue is the typical anti-hero. Some may remember him from Of Orcs and Men and feel an instant connection like that of meeting an old friend but without that he still takes a place in your heart. Every conversation has at least one well-timed instance of dry wit tacked onto its flanks which, while predictable, raises a smile.
His supporting cast includes a blind old geezer and an uppity pubescent brat of an official who don’t really shine alone. They’re sort of polishing cloths: A means to make Styx’s characterization and writing shine through.
You’ll have noticed by now that I’ve spent three paragraphs talking about a sniveling goblin rather than the game and there are two good reasons for that. The first is, as I said before, that the writing and flow of this tale really are its greatest assets. The second is not quite so shining because Styx: Master of Shadows seems to be going through an identity crisis.
Being a game about stealthily sneaking around to avoid or annihilate guards, one would assume the majority of time and effort put into development would go into the art of subtlety. Half of the time this is true. Enemies can react quickly to sounds. Incredible acts of subterfuge can be pulled off with the greatest of ease. Whole battalions of foes can fall to their knees with nothing more than a muffled whimper.
Yet half of the time, this isn’t the case. Shimmying across balustrades only works when the game respects your wish to let this happen. Other times you find yourself leaping up into an exposed position without intending to do so and being cut to ribbons. What you might plan as a quiet and efficient kill is scuppered by the enemy’s corpse as – without warning – it finds an overwhelming need to succumb to gravity, crashing loudly to the ground with the grace of a drunken elephant.
The tools on offer in this sea of indecision do help out a little however. Those occasions where it all comes together are blissful as a warm blanket on a cold winter’s day. Leaping from point to point is easily the most fun I have ever had when traversing the often harsh world of stealthy movement. Styx eschews the all-too-common need of modern third person action games to make every environmental action contextual.
You’re free to jump where you choose and land where you desire. It might end in death a little too often but being given that freedom is refreshing. If anything, the movement is more reminiscent of early 3D platformers like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro than its more obvious inspirations Dishonored and Thief.
Sadly it then snatches this progress away with inconsistencies. Walking into the same space on a walkway four different times resulted in different endings even though variables were the same. First time chap A spotted me. Then chap A didn’t but chap B did. Third times a charm? Chap A and B didn’t spot me. Fourth time they both spotted me so I gave up and stuck a throwing knife in each one’s neck, Indiana Jones-style, before cackling maniacally and saving.