Admission: we weren't the biggest fans of Styx: Master of Shadows. Despite showing a bit of potential here and there, it was impossible to look past how incredibly frustrating and repetitive the entire game was – there was simply no fun to be had. So going into the sequel, our scepticism was naturally at an all-time high. But we need not have worried, because although our reluctance felt justified going into Styx's second outing, what greeted us was a monumental evolution in every sense of the term.
While it does come with its own set of slight flaws, this follow up feels like the series' coming out party as the glints of promise from the predecessor come to the forefront and the complaints of frustration fall by the wayside for the most part. Styx: Shards of Darkness just did an Assassin's Creed II. Kinda.
What we have here is a third-person stealth game that puts you in the role of Styx, a goblin who has become an enemy of the empire. Those on the throne have given the imp-like race the title of The Green Plague, and to combat their infestation the empire has set up squads known as C.A.R.N.A.G.E. with the sole purpose of wiping out the green epidemic. After robbing three guardsmen of their pay during the game's tutorial mission, it's the leader of the aforementioned C.A.R.N.A.G.E. squad who Styx is intercepted by: Helledryn. But she's not out for Styx's blood, as the two of them strike a deal which gives our green goblin instructions to board an airship and steal an object known as the scepter.
The narrative present blows any sort of plotline found in Master of Shadows out of the water. It's cohesive, interesting, easy to follow, and most importantly, fun. You'll root for Styx in his quest for the specter and in turn see a different side to the C.A.R.N.A.G.E. leader Helledryn, while you slaughter all those beneath her in stature. It's an enjoyable ride that gets you from open to close, but on the other hand it's probably not something you'll look back on in a few months' time. It's a serviceable story, but if there's one thing that will stick with you, it'll be Styx himself.
The green gremlin is very much the star of the show largely thanks to his personality. In-game he'll make references to movies and relate them to what he's doing at the time. Hints to Toy Story, Tarzan, The Avengers, and The Lord of the Rings are just a few we picked up on. The humour then carries over into the death screens where before you have a chance to reload your save, Styx will make jokes about you, other games, and even the development team. There is the occasional joke that doesn't really hit, but for the most part the game will get a few genuine laughs out of you.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the supporting cast thanks to some very hit or miss voice acting. The character of Djarak is the main offender, who either shows a little bit too much enthusiasm or nowhere near enough emotion in the majority of his lines. Other characters have it a little better – Helledryn for example – but it's safe to say that no other individual even comes close to the quality of Styx's performance.
The typical gameplay loop of Styx: Shards of Darkness does bear a resemblance to that of Master of Shadows, but some major tweaking here and there has gone a long way to making the sequel a far, far better experience. Once again your main tasks will revolve around completing objectives within a semi-open environment all while not being seen, and it's that second part that was the real kicker in the original. Fortunately, it's a bit better here.
The most relevant enhancement is the quick save function, which is mapped to a quick press of right on the d-pad. This systematically changes the game because if used well, you'll rarely find yourself having to repeat large sections over and over again. This in combination with some returning mechanics help to make the game a lot more manageable. Amber vision makes its comeback, which is the title's version of Batman's detective mode, and this helps by highlighting climbable objects within the environment and displaying the vision cones of enemies a la Metal Gear Solid.
Another clear inspiration is Hitman, as Styx can poison food in order to bring death to his enemies and then hide them in the numerous chests dotted around. Although it's only one body to one trunk here, so Agent 47 would not be so happy. A few other returning mechanics include the ability to extinguish torches from a distance using sand, and the limited powers that amber gives Styx such as turning invisible for a short amount of time, and the capability to create a clone of himself to distract guards. All in all, Styx: Shards of Darkness just feels like a better game to simply play. The quick save function is a revelation for this sort of title, and with the returning features from the original, everything feels a lot fairer and more manageable.
Regrettably, however, one aspect that has seen very little love or care in the transition from prototype to sequel is the climbing. The traversal resembles that of the Uncharted series to a point, in that you can climb along hand holds in rocks and walls and then Styx will hold his hand out to indicate which surface he's going to jump next to, but it's nowhere near as precise. You can control the goblin mid-jump and the majority of the time this becomes a detriment as Styx veers off in a direction you didn't intend or he'll miss the next ledge completely. This inaccuracy was a flaw present in Master of Shadows and so it's a shame to see it return in a game that is otherwise of a far higher quality.
At the end of each of the nine missions, you'll be rated in four different areas: swiftness for the time it took you to finish the level, shadow for the number of alerts you triggered, mercy for the amount of enemies you killed, and thief for the extent of your token collecting. You'll gain SP points depending on how well you do, and these can be spent on upgrades found in the game's skill tree. Split up into five sections, you can purchase enhancements for your invisibility skills, boosts to the crafting options on offer, and advance the options that amber vision gives you. It's a skill tree that helps to benefit you in smaller ways, rather than one that can dramatically change the game. You can also re-spec all of your accrued points at any time, meaning commitment isn't much of a consideration.
The entirety of Styx: Shards of Darkness can be experienced with a friend in two player co-op, but we were unable to test this function prior to launch. All your items, equipment, and skills carry over from your own game if you were to join another, but your options after that are a little limited. Manual saves are disabled for the joining player, and you are significantly weaker within combat. It seems like a neat little feature that some may get a kick out of, but this is one you'll have to try yourself.
Our playthrough of the ten hour campaign was done on a PS4 Pro, but this didn't exactly help the visuals. The game isn't the prettiest to look at, and when combined with constant texture pop-in, both in-game and during cutscenes, it's easy to see why the title won't be remembered for its graphical prowess. Furthermore, we encountered the occasional bit of buggy AI where enemies would get trapped on objects in the environment, as well as a random hard crash back to the PS4's dashboard. The frame rate does manage to stick to a constant 30 frames-per-second but outside of that, the technical performance could use some work.
Styx: Shards of Darkness is an enormous improvement over its predecessor. The gameplay has seen a large amount of refinement to the point where it's actually a fun game to play, and Styx himself steals the show with his charismatic performance. It's not without its own set of returning and new defects, but Styx's second adventure is something we can confidently recommend. This is everything the first game should have been.