As you sit atop a wooden beam observing patrol patterns, you plot a series of moves: fire a bolt at the overseeing guard right when another walks into your acid trap, swoop in to snatch the loot and run off before anyone else notices. If it doesn’t go according to plan, you’ll cloak, hide in a closet, and slip out as the investigating party turns its backs to your exit. Styx: Shards of Darkness attempts to deliver such thrills, and at times it succeeds. However, these moments are sparse since you’re rarely put in a position where cunning is required. Ultimately, the game adheres to typical stealth conventions and pits you against foolish AI, with mission objectives that fail to make the most of the game's sprawling environments.
Shards of Darkness marks the return of the titular protagonist Styx, a foul-mouthed Goblin who originated in the 2012 RPG Of Orcs and Men. The 2014 prequel Styx: Master of Shadows was the spin off that made the shift to third-person stealth-action. Neither is required to engage in this new low-fantasy adventure, though some things remain constant. The substance known as Amber governs the world as an energy source. Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs are caught up in a power struggle while Goblins, like Styx, are treated as vermin.
A new material, called Quartz, shakes up the established political landscape and you embark on a journey to unravel its implications. However, twists and turns throughout the story lack any sort of gravitas. The supporting cast of characters like Helledryn and Djarak are integral to the events that unfold, but their motivations aren’t quite clear or put into a larger context. The same can be said about Styx, who seems to be suspect of those around him but is willing to go along with whatever plan his newfound partners put together without much thought. His convictions are flimsy and hardly go in any direction.
Styx himself is written to be comically vulgar, but attempts at humor fall flat. The heavy-handed self-referential and fourth wall-breaking quips throughout the game aren’t clever and often don’t fit the tone of the world. Important story events that occur mid-mission--that should induce panic in those within the vicinity--don’t translate to much of any consequence in-game. The premise is primitive, and the story only serves as a vehicle for the thrill of avoiding detection or executing assassinations.
The majority of your main quest is subject to making it to a certain point in the level or snatching a specific item. Hardly are there ever twists or curve balls in the mission parameters to keep things interesting, aside from a mid-game break in the traditional mission design. While side objectives emerge as you traverse levels, they often result in simply going to another room you wouldn’t otherwise or killing a certain NPC. A few puzzles are sprinkled here and there to break up the pace, but feel more like a diversion than a compliment. The sense of trepidation from other stealth games or situations that require you to think on your feet are few and far between.
Shards of Darkness would be nothing without its fluid controls. Running, crouching, and jumping are responsive and complement the opportunities to interact with your environment. A cover mechanic makes Styx adhere to the nearest wall and often recognizes your intended cover. That same button also lets Styx grab onto the ledge if you walk off the edge of a surface, which helps avoid dangerous falls and makes engaging in wall scaling a breeze. Leaping for ledges to reach new heights or shimmy across to bypass a locked door provides a smooth flow for combing through the levels. Scaling cliffs at the port in Korrangar highlights a sense of verticality and the ability to engage these heights.
A five-pronged skill tree is in place to help build the type of character you want Styx to be; learn to craft new items through the alchemy tree or earn the talent to assassinate enemies from above in the kill tree. Amber--akin to mana--fuels Styx’s powers. Spawn a clone to act as a controllable dummy and lure enemies or cloak to simply pass by unnoticed. Amber vision highlights key objects within the surrounding area, and doesn’t cost anything to activate, though it will fade out as you move. These abilities form a neat toy box to pull from throughout the game.
Styx also has a few tools at his disposal, such as acid traps and deadly bolts for a lethal approach, and balls of sand to extinguish fires and glass bottles for distractions. One of the more useful items is the odorous vial, which masks your musty goblin scent from the sharp noses of dwarves who will detect you if you’re in their proximity. These items can be picked up along the way, but you’ll more commonly acquire them by crafting from raw materials. The crafting system is simple and functional, and gives a slight incentive to examine your surroundings.
So many tools and abilities are at your disposal and should make for enticing permutations in your encounters, but the scope in which you’re asked to exercise these capabilities is underwhelming.
Enemy AI is a throwback to the early days of stealth games, and that’s not a compliment. They’ll go through the traditional behavior states, like searching, alert, and hostile phases. Guards searching for you will relegate their sighting to cliches like, “it was just a shadow,” or, “my mind was playing tricks,” as they return to a normal state. Enemies will occasionally keep you on your toes during alert phases as they’ll look in closets, under tables, and over ledges where you could hide. But if they lose track of you in a hostile phase or discover dead bodies--even of important figures--NPCs will eventually return to their patrol as if nothing had happened. Along with predictable patrol patterns, enemies are frequently in simplistic arrangements. They often act as separate entities and lack dynamic behavior. You’re often left unchallenged and can resort to unsophisticated solutions to complete mission objectives.
Combat isn’t a focus of the game, and it shows. The system in place is reduced to a clunky one-button parry that allows you to pounce the enemy after a successful block. If multiple guards are in close proximity, the game will struggle to recognize which one you’re parrying and often negates your ability to make a kill in combat. Certain skills can make this easier, but you’re better off avoiding it all together. Even if it’s intended to be used sparingly in tight situations, its implementation is off the mark.
Despite these shortcomings, smooth traversal mechanics and useful abilities are supplemented by the sprawling environments and dense levels throughout the game. The scale of Hunter’s Village astonishes as you step out of a deep, dark dungeon and overlook this seaside city. It’s riddled with houses full of loot, guards that detect you in different ways, and objectives that take you through every nook and cranny. Hopping from house to house unnoticed, keeping your distance from nosey dwarves, while investigating the location of quest items is Shards of Darkness at its best.
Even the shadowy underground fortresses have a grand scale and inspire awe. But the underlying disappointment is that you’re rarely given much of a reason to explore. That is unless you embark on the search for tokens, arbitrarily scattered throughout each mission. And despite the well-crafted environments, the game recycles these locations at the halfway point of Styx’s latest journey.
If you’re in for a challenge, higher difficulties will make detection parameters more strict and disable the combat system entirely. Guards are quicker to reach a heightened alert state and will kill you in one melee attack. Styx can’t take much damage on normal difficulty, but to escape pursuing guards will require much more effort. Carelessness will get you killed so expect more of a trial-and-error experience. You also have the option to disable objective markers, separate from difficulty, and to encourage more exploration.
Co-operative play is a new addition to the series, and it allows you to play the story missions with a friend or a random player through matchmaking. You have the option to enable co-op at any point in a mission as a host in “Create a Clone” and a player searching for a game will connect. “Become a Clone” puts you in a search for a random game to join. This can be a fun feature but it’s more of a hinderance than an advantage, not because of unpredictable player skill, but because there are now two players that can get caught. It’s also impossible to communicate if you're not using a third-party chat service. Co-op alongside a friend is much more viable and makes for brilliantly fun instances, but note that disabled saving forces you to finish missions in one fell swoop.
The better moments of Styx: Shards of Darkness are confined to a path that has already been tread in the stealth-action genre, but that doesn't mean they aren't valuable here. The thrill of pulling off a flawless assassination as you smoothly sneak off with valuable artifacts is what makes these types of games worth playing. But its detractors--cliche writing, unsophisticated AI, and arbitrary quests--culminate to an experience that feels like it's stuck in the past.