“A few flaws aren’t enough to drag down one of this year’s best stealth games.”

I played the original Styx (Master of Shadows) back when it came out in 2014. It was the same year that the Thief reboot was released, and that games flaws drove many people to check out Styx in search of a better stealth game. Most agreed that while Styx was rough around the edges and a bit unpolished, its core level design was leaps and bounds ahead of many stealth games released around that time and the game was a pleasant throwback to the low-fantasy days of the original Thief (1998).

A few months later, Master of Shadows was given away for free as a PS+ title which caused more people to discover it and slowly, the hype for a better sequel started to build up.

Well, its 2017 now and Master of Shadows successor Shards of Darkness is finally here. Does it live up to the expectations of the fans of the previous game? Will it appeal to the broader fans of the stealth genre?

Story

Lets get this out of the way, the story is the main flaw of this game. Its there, but thats about all you can say. There are moments that make you go WTF but not in the good way.

Good writing and stories have always been the bane of the stealth genre in general, I have about sixty hours in HITMAN (2016) and I couldnt tell you who or what the story is about. Dishonored (2012) was a game applauded almost universally for its gameplay, but even its story was B-movie at best.

For better or for worse, Shards of Darkness continues this tradition by having perhaps the most average story Ive ever seen. Things happen on screen and elicit no response from me, so if you enjoy story-rich fantasy worlds just look for another game. Its better if you dont take it seriously.

Presentation

What this game lacks in terms of plot, it makes up in terms of moment-to-moment presentation. The level of polish has improved significantly over the last game, and while it doesnt exactly break any records for its rendering techniques there are many levels that offer aesthetically wonderful vistas to behold. The worlds mixture of fantasy and steampunk elements often invokes flashbacks of the likes of Bioshock, The Witcher 2, Dishonored and floating islands, airships, shanty-towns, underground mines and hidden fortresses all provide wonderful backdrops to the action.

The stylistic lighting is a stand-out in almost every scene, having a volumetric quality to it which is embellished by the great use of bloom and light shaft techniques. The use of Unreal Engine 4 this time around also means that the standard package of post-processing effects has been utilised here, and it looks brilliant along with a temporal anti-aliasing solution that lends a slightly soft, filmic look to every scene making them completely free of any jagged edges. I also commend the use of object-based motion blur instead of the camera-based implementation that most games see, the result is that the view of the player is never disrupted, but character animations benefit from a smoother blended look that makes the animation look much better.

Unfortunately, there are some minor flaws that pop up from time to time certain enemies seem to snap between their animations instead of smoothly transitioning between them, and their pathfinding can often seem mechanical moving in jagged lines and sometimes getting momentarily stuck between objects and walls, or even clipping through the world. The disruptive stuff only happened to me about twice in my fifteen hours with the game, so its not a deal breaker by any means but its something you should be aware of.

While the direction of the cutscenes has improved by utilising slow-motion and depth-of-field, the lip-sync of NPCs makes me wonder if it was all designed with the French dub in mind because the timing for all the scenes seems slightly unnatural.

No one could complain that this is an ugly game. Sure, there are some textures that could have been higher resolution but Shards of Darkness presents the gameplay and the story with a great amount of visual shine.

Gameplay

The core gameplay of Shards of Darkness is very pure-stealth, and it’s something I haven’t seen for a while. If you get caught, your only defense is a Dark Souls like parry system with no other option – you may be able to pull it off against one enemy, but if you get discovered by two or more – you’re better off running and hiding. You can’t be a mass-murderer here, you’ll be utterly destroyed in an instant. There are some quirks to the type of stealth gameplay found here, mainly a focus on the main character Styx’s mobility and its relationship with how the levels are structured.

 

The entire level design is very vertical, almost every level has about 3 different height levels so you can decide how you want to approach any situation – and the developers have gone a really long way in order to encourage experimentation and unique play styles. The skill tree is completely reversible, so you can always re-spec your character to match whatever the mission at hand requires. The quick-save button has finally been implemented on a controller after endless complaining about the previous game – so you can save scum to your heart’s desire and mess around with ways to get more bonus points. Every nook and cranny of every level feels meticulously well-crafted when you consider all the choices available to the player – Cyanide have shown that if there’s anything they’re good at – it’s great level design.

You also have access to many certain abilities – invisibility and cloning, and when you level these up, it can lead to some interesting situations that you just don’t find in any other game.

If you’re thinking that having so many options available makes the game easy – boy, you’re in for a nasty surprise. The game has several additional objectives throughout the course of every mission that require you to traverse almost the entire level – couple this with a “token” system which challenges you to complete levels quickly, without being seen, without killing, while discovering everything and I’d say if you take every bonus objective and bonus experience token seriously, Shards of Darkness becomes one of the hardest stealth games ever released, right next to HITMAN’s professional difficulty. So while the main campaign is short if you play it straight (about 10-15 hours), there’s a ton of replayability here, and I’m sure even the most casual completionists will easily pass the 30-hour mark. For a 40 dollar game, that isn’t half bad – that’s better than the average Ubisoft title.

Of course, everything is balanced very carefully. The skill tree and the crafting mechanic in the game are only accessible from certain rooms in any given level, so you can’t just switch these up on the fly and you need to plan ahead – and potentially return to where you found them earlier. I’d say the gameplay of this title is so good that I’m willing to forget the missteps of the general writing and the plot. The core gameplay loop falls into – quicksaving, trying out something crazy, reloading, trying to get every bonus objective, dying a few times experimenting, and moving on to the next level – it’s all very satisfying.

There are a few hiccups that may stop you from initially enjoying the game though – Styx’s jump move in particular is very finnicky and takes a bit of time to get used to – and for a game that has this much of an emphasis on platforming and mobility, that’s not a great thing. I died quite a few times in the tutorial just because of miscalculated jumps, it’s just not communicated well and you’ll take a while to get the general “feel” of how far and where it goes. Don’t give up at the tutorial mission, is what you should take away from this, because there’s a seriously good game here – just with extremely minor flaws. If you even remotely enjoy stealth games, you’re going to love the gameplay on offer here.

Sound

Somewhere between the last game and this one, Styx turned into a kind of knock-off Deadpool. Snarkily dismissing every important character in the story and frequently breaking the fourth wall (and even taking an Arkham-style dig at the player after deaths). This is not a bad thing. I, for one, enjoy not playing the general morally superior silent protagonist – that trope has been done to death too many times.

What is a bad thing, however – is how sometimes Styx tends to talk over enemies during gameplay when important plot elements are being discussed. One does get the overall impression that for being the titular protagonist of a pure-stealth game, Styx talks a bit too much for his own good – and I can see people getting tired of his shtick pretty quickly.

Otherwise, the music in this game is well done, composed mostly of dark orchestral sounds – cello strokes abound. It feels appropriate for the fantasy themed world with great cues for  dynamic in-game events to let you know when the tension builds up and lets up.

Despite the lip-sync issues I mentioned earlier, along with the poor timing of the animations with regards to the dialogue – the dub itself is quite good, every character’s voice plays back at a good volume with an appropriate and understandable accent at all times – and subtitles are enabled by default, which is always a good thing.

A Word on the PC Port

I played Shards of Darkness on my personal computer which has the following specs;

  • Intel Core i3-6100 running at 3.7GHz
  • Nvidia GTX 1060 6GB
  • 8GB RAM
  • 1TB HDD

On startup, all settings were set to Epic at 1080p and the whole game played at a locked 60FPS with almost no noticeable dips during my 15 hours of play. Even though I have an old hard drive instead of a flashy SSD, load times were pretty quick – loading into a level from the main menu takes about 30 seconds, and loading quick saves always takes under 5 seconds. I expect that with an SSD, one would barely see the loading screens at all.

The keyboard mappings are completely rebindable, which is a relief, and the controller support is also top-notch – offering you a choice between the Xbox buttons on-screen or the Playstation ones. For people like me who use a Dualshock 4 to play, this was a pleasant surprise to see. All in all, this is a great port with great performance.

Summary

Shards of Darkness is a wonderful stealth game and a great successor to Master of Shadows. In many ways, it reminds me of Dishonored, and I hope the game finds new fans who like the pure-stealth genre. I’m also reminded of the quality jump from the Witcher 1 to the Witcher 2, which is kind of what’s happened here – needless to say I’ll be keeping an eye on this studio for their upcoming games – and also praying that they have better stories.

Pros:
+ Great vertical level design that rewards exploration
+ Always at least 3 different ways to approach any objective
+ Elegant quick saves
+ Wonderful graphics, strong steampunk/fantasy world design
+ Pure stealth emphasis
+ Reversible skill tree

Neutral:
? Takes time to get used to Styxs jump
? A bit short but very replayable
? Styx talks a bit too much for a stealth game protagonist

Cons:
– Story ranges from average to outright stupid and ends abruptly
– Occasionally janky animations, lip-sync and AI pathfinding

I would rate Styx: Shards of Darkness 8 / 10.

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