If you are someone who even remembers 2014’s Styx: Master of Shadows, then you already have a good idea of what to expect going into the sequel, Styx: Shards of Darkness. Cyanide Studio has naturally expanded the blueprint established by the original game on every conceivable level, but the result is still a flawed and janky experience that too often falls into the trappings of mediocrity.
For better and for worse, Styx: Shards of Darkness places an uncompromising focus on stealth above all else. This shouldn’t be confused for an open-ended experience with multiple options for achieving branching objectives, rather that players are funnelled into a binary design system where they must either stick to the shadows or fail to progress through each of the nine missions. On the plus side, these large-scale areas are elaborate constructions; vertical and horizontal labyrinths which play host to dozens of nooks, crannies and impressive vistas, thanks to the superb lighting work of the Unreal Engine 4.
Styx himself makes for a wonderful breath of fresh air as a protagonist. In a stark contrast to the brooding, chiselled heroes of comparative stealth games, the anti-hero is a stocky, foul-mouthed and fourth-wall breaking goblin who cares little for justice or the greater good. As an agile but rather puny homunculus, he’s also extremely vulnerable. If you’re not careful, enemies can kill Styx in one hit, and the game isn’t afraid to throw traps and ambushes at you without warning. Rather than something like Dishonored, which revels in player empowerment, Styx: Shards of Darkness always makes you feel as though you’re in over your head; a bold design choice for the genre that keeps the gameplay feeling tense and interesting throughout the campaign.
The main setback preventing Shards of Darkness from attaining greatness is its mechanical rigidity. The janky facial animations are the first telltale signs of an experience that can’t quite sustain a sense of coherence among its many parts, but this only gets worse during the gameplay itself. Despite his agility, Styx controls with nary a hint of finesse, and even simple tasks like hiding or jumping can feel awkward at times. You’ll die more than you should, which spoils the fun one can have with the many tools and tricks at Styx’s disposal for dispatching his foes.
Styx: Shards of Darkness represents a decent improvement over its predecessor, with a higher production value that illuminates the game’s adaptable stealth mechanics and impressively labyrinthine levels. It’s a far from a perfect product, but stealth enthusiasts would be remiss not to consider stepping into the shoes of this po-faced goblin burglar.