Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones Review

Shunned in his lifetime but later recognized for his work in weird fiction and horror, American author H. P. Lovecraft created Cthulhu mythos that is rooted in nightmarish landscapes of human psyche and beyond. It has been frequently exploited throughout entertainment media and the history of video games drawing from its dark subject matter is as long as it’s varied in quality. Most have gone for cheap thrills with tentacled monsters so typical to illustrate Lovecraftian horrors but only a few have tried to understand the deeper meaning behind the twisted lore. Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones by Turkish indie developer Cultic Games definitely belongs to the latter group as it transfers the Cthulhu concept to a classic computer role-playing game. It’s a wise, versatile, detailed, characteristic and throughout blood-curdling journey as you take your chosen avatar through unfathomable Eldritch horrors in the 1920’s New England.

Humanity has pretty much lost to the Old Ones that arrived on Black Day, heralding the end of the world as we know it. Ripped apart from rest of the world, Arkham is dislocated in time and space and its population left to their own devices in a world devoid of hope and redemption under Elder Gods ungodly watch. A cult devoted to worship the ancient alien powers and the mob taking an advantage of ensuing chaos rule the everyday life that repeats in the same desolation day in and day out. Your character used to be someone before the dreaded Black Day and you get to choose his or her former profession from eight archetypes characteristic of the period: academic, aristocrat, criminal, explorer, investigator, occultist, performer or soldier. Each archetype also has sub-classes with their own traits and vices and thus, no one is alike. Also, the chosen age plays a role as young ones are physically more capable but lack the wisdom of their elders. I picked up a young movie actress for my first character that came with natural sex appeal but with a weakness to addictions. After choosing a portrait that transfers into the looks of the character sprite, you’re whisked off to the dark streets of Arkham. On one hand, you’re trying to figure if there is some kind of way out of there and if not, at least carve out a meaning to your miserable existence. The know-how of your selected profession paves the way for the arduous adventure ahead.

You don’t have to tackle Eldritch horrors all by yourself as up to two companions can join your side and you can also hire one henchman for some extra muscle to aid in confrontations with evil or lost souls. First hours of the game are spent in learning different systems that make up the necessary gameplay, like how to camp properly and set up possible activities during it to heal up wounds, learn spells and gain lost sanity. You will also learn the hard way how to use various items, either for crafting different aids or making progress in quests. For example, after fighting - or sneaking, as that’s often a wiser move - your way through a dimly-lit storage house, you will come to realize that a lantern is needed to interact with quest objects you can barely see when squinting your eyes. Multi-faceted crafting requires associated skills (medical or science) and there’s a lot of stuff to loot throughout the game world and purchase from different vendors like pawn shops and apothecaries. A local antique dealer, in turn, can decrypt artifacts that offer bonuses to various skills but it takes occult knowledge to uncover their hidden detriments. Everything costs cigarettes, an unconventional currency in the world where the economy has been flushed down the toilet. Luckily, you can earn cigs by gambling and bartering although they are never in a great supply.

Health points are nowhere the thing you have to worry about the most. Sanity is far more important to measure your competence in tackling the obstacles in your way. Especially spellcasters, who have to tread on thin ice because casting spells costs precious sanity. All witnessed horrors, like a hooded cultist stabbing a non-believer in the streets or an incomprehensible monster appearing in the skyline atop a hotel roof, impair sanity and when all of it is lost, it’s a game over. Unorthodoxically, consuming alcohol or lighting up a cigar regains sanity on a spot. Moreover, by role-playing according to the belief you chose for your character in the beginning grants sanity back. Still, a constant loss of sanity can lead to long-lasting mental illnesses such as schizophrenia that can suddenly garble perfectly sane dialogue choices to read like mad gibberish. Luckily, it’s more for an effect as persons you talk with will understand the original meaning of the chosen line. More than sanity, though, all the suffering your poor character sees through leads to permanent angst and once it passes a crucial threshold, you have to choose one from several defects, like suffering a sanity penalty if you fail to gain experience points or unlock journal entries in a certain time. Defects really aren’t nice to have but you just have to live with them the best you can.

Unlike in most other CRPGs, the game progress in Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones isn’t about advancing from one fight to another. A reasonably effective turn-based combat that uses action points to regulate the character movement and activities is only a necessary evil that you need to engage in time to time. You can avoid most of the skirmishes altogether by investing points in stealth skill and sneaking past the enemies but more so, the game is heavily event and story-driven. The focus is on an adventure game-like role-playing where you can last for very long without taking up arms. By her profession, my character had a high presence and a proficient speechcraft that I kept on upgrading upon level-ups so I could reason my way out of potential dangers and sweet-talk people to my needs. It reminded me of the time when I almost entirely spoke my way through Fallout: New Vegas the second time I completed it. You can really talk about role-playing when what you do and choose matters the most.

The story unfolds like a good thriller where you constantly find new clues to help you with quests at hand. It feels like Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones is the first CRPG in a long time where everything you do, no matter how seemingly menial it might first appear, is linked to the common goal. No fetch quests here, as most tasks are properly motivated and turn out be much more than idle padding. There are no quest markers either, so you really have to study the game’s comprehensive and constantly updating quest journal to get your bearings. The overhanging objective is to decipher the lines of a poem left behind a terrifying, faceless Dismal Man you first saw in a dream and feel like you have to seek out to make some meaning to the world gone mad. Whenever you brave outdoor locations around Arkham to reach uncovered story locations, random events and inescapable horrors can occur but more importantly, you can run into what seem like chance encounters at first but that turn out to be crucial in the big picture. So, it really pays out to venture between scenes if you’re a bit lost as what to do next. Once in a while when you’re resting at the camp, you are more or less voluntarily invited to the Dreamlands where further revelations of the story are played out. A seemingly tangled web of wide-ranging quests and spells of dream walking create a wonderfully consistent game plan, no matter what terrifying twists and sacrifices it takes. Be prepared to lose some of what’s good in you along the way as it’s a thorny path you must tread on.

A characteristic, old-fashioned and hand-drawn Eastern European art style illustrates many characters, dark alleyways and unspeakable horrors of Arkham in a charismatic and painstaking detail. The game looks like an old, intricate ink drawing that has come alive to revitalize all sides of Lovecraftian horror engraved to it. The clothes appear cutely on a character sprite which is really rare in a 2D CRPG. Outfits have no statistics so they aren’t armor as such, but on the other hand, you can freely dress up the character in a look that becomes her. All the other garments you can happily pawn for some extra cigarettes! You don’t need to care for your companions’ get-ups as they wear what they want, and the shared inventory means that you don’t need to hassle between characters when equipping them with weapons and support items. There’s almost no music in the game, save for a jazz musician jamming in the local bar, as a disturbing ambient murmur makes up most of the soundscape you will hear.

The combination of a prose through plentiful and well-written dialogue and a peculiar, detailed cartoon art is really invigorating. Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones caught my insatiable imagination in a way no other game in the genre has done in a long time. In fact, I’m going out on a limb saying that it’s the most satisfying traditional CRPG I have played since Fallout 2 and that was over twenty years ago! Stygian isn’t that long as it takes some 15-20 hours to see its horrors through, depending on your willingness to search every nook and cranny of its warped world, and the story paves the way for more adventures in the doomed Arkham. However, the replay value is strong due to different character archetypes and what gameplay options they will bring along, adding to the multiple ways to approach quests. In many ways, the game was an eye-opening experience. It sets the bar high what comes to meaningful content and depicting an atmospheric game world and also reminds of what is still possible to achieve in its well-worn genre when given enough effort, heart and thought.

Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.