It's kind of an unwritten rule of game design that the player character has to be, if not heroic, at least relatable. But let's face it. In real life, most people aren't noble, undaunted and extraordinarily resourceful. They're more like the titular character Styx, a foul-mouthed, nasty, vengeful and amoral Goblin. Or is it just me?
Styx, the Goblin-antihero/antagonist, returns for the third time to a series that has evolved from its RPG roots. It has now become a stealth-focused action game in which melee combat is the least effective -- or satisfying -- solution to moving through missions. Styx: Shards of Darkness instead focuses on traversal through a puzzle-like, sprawling and vertical world and multiple paths to completing a given task. Impatient hack-and-slashers will not enjoy Styx.
Once again, the Goblin is a reluctant assassin-for-hire, cursing, complaining, insulting and fourth-wall-breaking his way through the story, and there will be plenty of players who are turned off by the constant -- and frankly, hit or miss and rarely smart -- lowbrow humor. I have a pretty high tolerance for crude humor, and I like it when games break the wall and are unapologetically self-referential. But there is an uneasy disconnection between the story's dark tone and Styx's gutter-dwelling patter.
In any case, Goblin-for-hire Styx is sent on a series of nine, multi-part missions through and around the elven city of Korranger in order to investigate and thwart an evil priestess from acquiring a powerful magical substance called Quartz. The vast majority of missions are fetch quests liberally sprinkled with shadowy assassinations and employ Styx's extensive bag of tricks and abilities. It's a little like Thief, except the main character is a snarky and despicable little Goblin with a penchant for scatological humor.
The game's levels are recycled and revisited throughout, but they are darkly beautiful to look at and absolutely crammed with detail, hidden treasures to loot, secret passages and multiple paths around, under, over, and through. Generally, moving Styx silently through the world is one of the game's pleasures and mechanical successes. But now and again, the camera or more often, an imprecise jump, results in death. It's frustrating because Shards of Darkness is almost Dark Souls-like in its sparing check points. By and large though, Styx's controls are well-tuned, and movement is fluid.
Styx can craft a large arsenal of bombs, special bolts, traps and magical abilities (like vomiting out clones of himself to distract enemies or spraying Goblin scent) from several skill trees. However, melee combat is way down near the bottom of his good skills. Unlike games like Dishonored, stealth is the only viable path. Although the game's pattern-following enemies are not terribly smart, detection is almost always a death sentence.
Styx: Shards of Darkness' single-minded dedication to being a stealth game is both admirable and potentially a turnoff to players who expect more flexibility in their approach to completing missions. The flexibility is there, though it's entirely represented by the myriad ways the title character moves through the shadows and confounds his enemies. It's refreshing to play a despicable, amoral antihero; but the game's puerile, scattershot humor will not appeal to everyone. Although its mission objectives are a bit repetitive, the balletic act of moving through the world makes Styx: Shards of Darkness overall entertaining.