Of Orcs and Men is easily one of my favourite RPGs. It was focused in the story it wanted to tell, had stunning music, and most importantly, the characters were fascinating. Consider my surprise when, despite the mixed critical reaction, it got a prequel in the form of Styx: Master of Shadows. A superb stealth game featuring Of Orcs and Men’s foul-mouthed goblin protagonist Styx, its dizzyingly vertical level design and agile sneaking gameplay were a shock to pretty much everyone.
And so now comes Styx: Shards of Darkness, a sequel to Master of Shadows (but still a prequel to Of Orcs and Men) that continues to offer up some fantastic stealth and eye-wateringly huge environments. It’s a shame that, this time around, Styx is a victim of some of the most annoying writing in a game this generation.
Styx: Shards of Darkness doesn’t require too much knowledge of either of its predecessors, but also serves as a bridge between the two. Styx, the only intelligent goblin (who is also wildly addicted to a magical liquid called Amber), forms an unlikely alliance with an anti-Goblin organisation, and must investigate the inner workings of the Dark Elf city of Korrangar. Along the way he gets involved in political intrigue and the price Amber has had on the world.
A sequel to Master of Shadows that continues to offer up some fantastic stealth and eye-wateringly huge environments
Master of Shadows came out during a drought of decent stealth games, so it was difficult to figure out whether it was good because it was good, or good because it was all we’d had for a while. Shards of Darkness proves the formula totally works.
The core of Shards of Darkness is in the map design. Each level is sprawling in every direction, and the sheer amount of verticality at play is dizzying. Multiple floors, side passages, rooftops and ledges can be scurried around, meaning each time I tried for an objective often ended up playing entirely differently each time. Styx’s small stature is put to fantastic use, letting him hide in a bunch of creative places that reward either quick thinking or skilful platforming.
They don’t encourage stealth or creativity.
Each stage offers a new goal such as planting bombs, assassination, theft and even kidnapping drunken NPCs, which helps make each level feel distinct. Some stages recycle maps seen earlier in the game, but the unique objectives and the multiple angles of approach the level design provides help make them feel just as original as anything else.
The boss fights are naff though, which is par for the course with stealth games. They don’t encourage stealth or creativity, devolving into just “avoid the screen-filling attack to get to the weak spot” nonsense.
Laura had troubles controlling the game when she played an in-dev build a few weeks back, but I had little problem getting Styx to clamber and climb his way around the world. Even tight ledges over bottomless pits – usually a recipe for disaster in 3D platformers – worked well thanks to the ever-so-slightly magnetic nature of his movement. Being able to confidently scurry away up to the rafters while being chased by a band of angry elves felt fantastic.
Styx being as highly agile and easy to control as he is benefits those sprawling landscapes from a mechanical perspective, but it’s impossible to ignore the visual feast they provide too. There’s a greater variety to the environments in Shards of Darkness than in Master of Shadows, with daytime levels, underground catacombs and the Elven city at the heart of it all being exquisitely rendered in immense scale. Because of its variation, Shards of Darkness feels less constructed than the conveniently placed ledges and sconces that littered Master of Shadows.
The music also does a great job at setting the fantastical, subtle tone the game does so well. Both Of Orcs and Men’s and Master of Shadows’ scores were some of my favourite in games full stop, and Shards of Darkness certainly didn’t let me down on that front.
The one place where the presentation falters somewhat is in the cut scenes. Action scenes are fantastic, but anything that is even slightly slower-paced feels lacking in polish. The animations are stiff and robotic, the lip-syncing non-existent, and motion blur is liberally applied to everything. Polish is always something Cyanide has struggled with, but when the environmental design is this good, it feels like they’re missing something huge by not putting that level of skill into their storytelling as well.
It feels like they’re missing something huge by not putting that level of skill into their storytelling as well
Going in to it I was convinced the story would be great, as Master of Shadows had a surprisingly deep, even philosophical, plot that explored Styx’s very existence. It came completely out of left field at the time, and I was hoping Shards of Darkness would continue that path. It really didn’t.
Instead, Shards of Darkness is a load of disparate threads that are fastened together with sticky tape and spit. Characters come and go depending on when they’re conveniently useful to the events, the politics of the world aren’t built upon enough to feel as impacting as they’re framed as being, and the way the missions are connected often feel more like Styx is stumbling through the story than being guided by any sort of narrative consistency.
Styx has always been vulgar, cynical and harsh, but suddenly in Shards of Darkness he’s asking the player to order in pizza or hand him the controller instead.
What’s worse is that the dialogue constantly draws attention to this in the absolute worst way: it breaks the fourth wall constantly for comedic effect. Styx has always been vulgar, cynical and harsh, but suddenly in Shards of Darkness he’s asking the player to order in pizza or hand him the controller instead. Every death is punished with a quip about how poorly the player is doing (including something about an apple pie?), and then repeated to nauseating effect.
He quips about how convenient various narrative beats are, how the levels are designed if they were a game (which is strange as the level design is stellar), and even takes pot shots at everything from Breaking Bad to Assassin’s Creed. None of it is actually funny, most of the jokes boil down to “you know about that thing we also know about? Please laugh”.
To top it off, there’s one or two jokes about sexual assault and constant jibes at one of the few women characters’ size thrown in there to push it from “just not funny” to “actively insulting”. It’s such a let-down after how carefully considered and well-written the previous game was, but even without that raised bar Shards of Darkness is just obnoxiously scripted from beginning to end.
It’s a shame the writing is unmitigated garbage, because the game it’s been dribbled onto is fantastic. The level design is an improvement over the already sublime Master of Shadows, and there are some genuinely memorable missions that make great use of the world Cyanide has built.
But that writing. The intelligence of its predecessors, which explored everything from racism and activism to free will and existentialism has been replaced by Family Guy-level cultural references and fourth wall-breaking guff that swings from insulting the player’s intelligence to downright offensive. Shards of Darkness could have easily been Cyanide’s best game ever if the writer was locked in a cupboard.
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.
Platform: PC [Reviewed]/PlayStation 4/Xbox One
Developer/Publisher: Cyanide Studios/Focus Home Interactive
Release date: March 14th, 2017
- Stunning environments.
- Complex level structure.
- Inventive mission designs.
- The writing. All of it. Every word of it.
- Unpolished animations.
- The writing, again.
A fantastic stealth game that has almost all of its enjoyment ripped out of it by shoddy, insultingly bad writing.