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It's hard to deny H.P. Lovecraft's place among the most influential writers of the 20th century. Even if we disregard the so-called Lovecraft Circle, a group of like-minded writers that included such prominent authors like Robert E. Howard, we will then be left with the Cthulhu Mythos that inspired innumerable works of fiction. In this day and age this of course includes video games. From pen and paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons to wildly popular MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, if you look hard enough, you will find Lovecraftian elements pretty much everywhere.
And while some games, like FromSoftware's Bloodborne, limit themselves to thematic similarities, others take a more direct approach. Successfully crowdfunded back in 2016, Cultic Games' Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones is one such game. Described as a supernatural horror roleplaying video game, Stygian eschews any pretense of subtlety and instead sends its players on a madness-inducing journey in a grim world where Cthulhu has awoken and all sorts of horrible monsters are openly roaming the streets.
Non-Euclidean Game Design
Cthulhu wakes up. Everyone dies. The end. Well, not according to Stygian. There, the city of Arkham, along with its inhabitants, gets transported to some distant dimension where all the horrors sane people previously didn't dare to imagine are a real and present danger. In the ensuing chaos a bunch of mobsters takes over a chunk of Arkham, turning it into a zone of relative safety, while the rest of the city gets overrun by cultists who are all too eager to ritually sacrifice anyone who the mob doesn't like. Life goes on.
This is where you come in. After you create your character, you get tasked with following the Dismal Man, a dapper faceless individual who may actually know what's going on. You're a bit fuzzy on the details since your grand quest comes to you in a dream, but seeing how the world is gone and you have nothing better to do, you decide to poke around.
Atmosphere-wise, I feel like Stygian does a pretty decent job of sticking to the source material without trying too hard to emulate Lovecraft's very specific, one might say viscous, writing style. At the same time, the game's writing is a bit uneven and can at times surprise you with some pretty generic and bland dialogues. The sheer number of references can be a bit overwhelming as well. Sure, the Old Ones may be out in the open and there's no more room for subtle psychological horror in a world like this, but that doesn't mean that the game has to turn into a Lovecraft theme park either.
On the other hand, Stygian's roleplaying system is pretty robust. Its classes are represented by setting-appropriate character origins. So for example you can be an Investigator, an Explorer, or an Occultist. There's a total of eight origin classes, each with four “sub-classes” that grant additional boons and penalties. You also get to choose your character's age. Young characters get a bonus to their physical attributes but a penalty to starting skills, while older characters are more skilled but physically weaker.
Upon leveling up you will receive a couple of skill points and one merit point you can use to pick up a perk. Unfortunately the perk selection is rather lacking. Most of them grant minor boosts to your skills or secondary stats, with a select few unlocking some active combat abilities.
Speaking of secondary stats, apart from health, your character has a sanity bar that represents their mental fortitude. Witnessing horrific events and encountering otherworldly horrors lowers your sanity and if it reaches 0 in combat, you lose. If your sanity drops low during exploration, you'll run the risk of developing a mental affliction that will affect your character both in combat and during dialogues.
And since this is a game about witnessing unspeakable horrors and going insane in the process, apart from the usual levels you gain after you accumulate enough experience, you also have these negative Angst levels. Once you gain one of those, you have to choose one negative perk that makes your character worse in some way. While theoretically, a system like this could be pretty cool, in Stygian you gain a good chunk of Angst points after every battle. Win or escape, it doesn't matter. Which means that if you value your character's mental well-being, you will want to avoid combat as much as possible. And that's not very fun.
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