Do you like your stories dark? Not just your regular everyday darkness, but something so bleak and nihilistic that no glimmer of happiness can be found within? A world of horrors so, well, horrifying that the mere sight of them weakens your grasp on your own sanity?
Well then you’re in luck my friends, because the cosmic horror genre is right up your alley! The defining work of the genre, something that most are sure to know even if they’ve never actually read any of the stories, is the Cthulhu mythos. Crafted by famed author H.P. Lovecraft amongst others, these tales of otherworldly creatures and human suffering have long been a gold mine for horror game writers.
The game we’re looking at today is one based on the Cthulhu mythos, released about a month ago…but we figured taking a look at it now was apropos considering the holiday.
Developed by Cultic Games and 1C Entertainment, Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones was released on September 26th, 2019, for PC. This look will cover the first few hours of the game.
Stygian is presented as a classic western RPG, and is extremely focused on the player playing out their own story within the world of the game. The story takes place in the city of Arkham during the prohibition era. An event that has come to be known as the “Black Day” has thrust the city into a seemingly alternate dimension, inhabited by a slew of brain-breaking horrors.
It didn’t take long for modern society to fall apart. Arkham has come under rule of the Mob and also finds itself at the mercy of cultists who worship the “Old Ones,” horrifying Lovecraftian abominations. People are regularly murdered on the street, those that are still alive are living in squalor, and the few that are still holding on to bits of their sanity are just trying to get by.
You enter this world with a character of your own creation. The choice is yours as to their age, occupation, skills, and core beliefs. Whether you want to play the game as a good Christian soldier or a nihilistic old mob member, the choice is yours, and many of the details chosen here affect what you’re able to do in the game’s story.
I entered the world of Stygian as a young Hollywood actress, an occupation that gave me focus in speechcraft and stealth, as well as a high “sex appeal,” but incredibly susceptible to addiction (which isn’t the greatest thing when many of the heath and sanity-restoring items in the game are things such as booze and opium). As for my core beliefs, I chose to worship the almighty dollar, going for “Materialistic.”
The game opens with a dream sequence, where a mysterious figure with a cane leads your character through town. Upon waking, you’re given your first quest: seek out this thing from your dream.
Stygian is somewhat open in how you approach your goals. There is no hand-holding here; you will have to explore the town of Arkham, speaking with its residents to discover clues on how to accomplish your mission. I started things off by winning a game of darts in the local pub (by using my Stealth skills to bend my opponent’s dart tips), sleeping with a random dude on the street for cigarettes (this game’s currency), and then just happening to stumble across a mysterious key that drove the main story forward.
Paying attention to dialogue for hints is the key to the game here, but the problem is, most of the dialogue is just…boring. All the characters you interact with are either blatantly evil, suffering horribly, or both, so “dull” seems to be a weird term to use. The thing is, with literally everyone in the game being either a terrible person or a quivering wreck, I became numb to it quickly.
Having high skill in speechcraft also made every important conversation a breeze, as there was rarely a time I failed a skill check when using it. To be fair, though, I pretty much poured all of my experience points gained each level into the skill, as well as stealth. My plan here was to get through as much of the adventure as I could based on my talking skills alone.
The reason I took this approach is because of just how appallingly slow the battle system in this game is. Fights in Stygian are turn-based affairs on a grid, similar to games like Trails in the Sky. Each round, the turn order of everyone on the field shows up at the top of the screen, and on each character’s turn, they have a certain amount of AP that they can spend to move, attack, power up, or defend.
Unfortunately, everything moves at an absolutely glacial pace. Characters move slowly around the screen. Attacks last just a few seconds too long. You’re forced to watch every move that every enemy on the screen makes. When up against a mob of six or seven enemies, the time waiting can often be counted in minutes. The very first fight in the game took nearly ten minutes to complete.
With my skill in stealth, I was luckily able to avoid most other encounters during my time with the game. I had a feeling that actual fighting may be optional, as Stygian felt like one of those “play the way you want” kind of games. Unfortunately, I hit a wall during a later mission where the only way I could skip a battle was if I had enough points in my melee fighting skills…which, of course I did not.
Proceed to be torn to shreds by enemies I was woefully unprepared for.
Overall, I really just had trouble getting into Stygian. The plot and dialogue didn’t grab me, and the battle gameplay is just…not good. With these two things being the core facets of the experience, I can’t say I really enjoyed myself overall.
To be fair, there is always the chance that the story will open up more as the game progresses. However, with the first few hours of a game failing to hook me in, I find it difficult to work up the motivation to jump back into the world of Stygian.