Styx is a sneaky bastard – so much so, his sneakiness and bastardness each account for about half of his character design. They are also a big part of the reason why I have a love-hate relationship with Shards of Darkness, the third game from the Of Orcs and Men fantasy universe, and Styx's second solo outing.
Styx is everything a stealth gamer could possible wish for – he is small, extremely agile, and deadly. He also controls beautifully. Transitioning from cover to ledges to a nearby rafter is all seamless and fluid, and I never feel like I have to battle to get the diminutive goblin to go where I want him to. In a game where not being seen paramount, this is invaluable.
He also has some useful skills. Styx can spew out (I mean this literally) a controllable clone that can be used to distract enemies, interact with switches, drop heavy objects, and so forth. Styx can also render himself temporarily invisible to get across areas where cover is scarce.
Then there's his tool belt, which is filled with wonderful toys from acid traps to odour blocking potions and torch extinguishing sands. You are never in a situation where you do not have the right tool for the job with Styx – provided you stay out of sight. That's because Shards of Darkness is a fairly pure stealth game, and generally needs to be played as such. While you can defeat an enemy or two in one-on-one goblin versus man brawls, direct confrontation usually results in death.
Sometimes you invite death, though, because Styx is completely unlikeable. He's also poorly written, and his farcical commentary grates. So while his voice acting is by far the best in the game, the character of Styx is just excruciating. You cannot mute him, and after only an hour or so he became so irritating I had to walk away from my PC.
I understand what Cyanide is going for here. Styx is a cut-throat wise-cracking goblin – a merry prankster with a dagger and an attitude. But the execution is poor, he isn't interesting at all, and his fourth wall breaking just does not mesh with the game's grim fantasy setting. He's a wannabe Deadpool, and winds up as a cut-rate Duke Nukem – or worse.
The story is pretty poor, too. Styx must infiltrate the Dark Elven city of Körangar to uncover why the dark elves have formed an alliance with the dwarves, but from there nothing really connects, and at times it all makes very little sense. All you really need to know is that Styx is back, sneaking and stabbing his way through feckless guardsmen and clueless nobility.
And while Styx’s abilities are fantastically realized, the same cannot be said for the world he is sneaking through. Shards of Darkness has expansive levels that are often very nice to look at, and Styx’s animations are flawless, but the actual level design is very simplistic and unforgivably repetitious.
Each of the game's 15 missions take place in a different environment, but it’s all window dressing – the actual construction of each level feels very cut and paste. As a result, there is a sameness to the experience that removes all the fun from exploration. Throw in some braindead AI and simplistic behaviour triggers for enemies, and Shards of Darkness loses much of the atmosphere lent by its visuals.
The constant irritation of Styx and some pedestrian level design hamstring what could have been a fantastic game. Mechanically, Styx is one of the most enjoyable stealth characters I have ever used – right up there with Garrett himself. But he's the absolute worst to be around, which maybe explains why a better story, more interesting level design, and smarter enemies all opted to stay hidden.