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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.
Still, picking up negative perk after negative perk is even worse, so you would probably want to pick up at least a few levels of Stealth. And once you try using the skill, you will come face to face with one of Stygian's more annoying flaws – its mystifying lack of transparency.
Take the aforementioned Stealth skill for example. You have no way of knowing what raising the skill does exactly. You can only assume that it makes you harder to spot. How much harder? You don't know. How do you tell if a monster sees you? You can't. You just have to click the stealth button and hope for the best.
The same can be said about the majority of Stygian's systems. I completed roughly a third of the game convinced that it was impossible to miss with an attack. As it turned out, this was not the case and attacks could indeed miss. But seeing how the game lacks a hit chance indicator of any sort, that's a very understandable mistake as far as I'm concerned.
Another puzzling set of systems revolves around the passage of time. You have no way of telling that time still passes in Arkham, but it does. And so your character has to eat and rest, which forces you to keep buying rations and camping supplies. Now camping supplies I can understand, especially since the game's rest system allows you to use a multitude of skills, read books, socialize with your companions, and research various gadgets and occult artifacts. But rations make no sense to me. They serve no purpose. You can buy food in pretty much every store and it's very cheap. Unless you forget to buy it, you will never run out. But there is still an ever-present invisible timer nagging at you to keep moving, and it can get incredibly annoying.
If I'm being honest, a lot of Cultic Games' design decisions resist any reasonable explanation. Some systems are superfluous, others don't make a lot of sense, others still seem to exist solely to annoy the player.
Let's just say I was fairly surprised when I realized you only got one chance to recruit companions. Absentmindedly click through a single conversation and that's it, you'll never see that companion again. Seeing how my character wasn't too good at fighting, this resulted in some fairly unpleasant early encounters.
At the same time, some of the game's systems are fun and engaging. Like the aforementioned camping system. Or the crafting system. Now, I usually dislike crafting in games, but Stygian actually manages to make crafting fun. You can pick up all sorts of junk during your travels, or just buy some from vendors, and then you can use your science skill to research said junk and get rewarded with crafting recipes. And pretty much every item you can craft is unique and useful in some way. In fact, Stygian's crafting system reminded me of Troika Games' Arcanum, and when it comes to crafting that's pretty much as high as praise goes.
So, back to combat. If you don't have a party, things can get pretty tough. If your party is full, the fights are going to be very easy, even if your character is a paranoid alcoholic who keeps clobbering his allies with a wrench.
Stygian's combat system is a pretty simplistic turn-based affair where you don't have that many tactical options and the best strategy every time involves finding a choke point, surrounding your enemies, and backstabbing them until they stop moving. There are some special attacks, you can use consumables, and the game's magic system is pretty engaging (you have to spend sanity and occasionally health to cast spells and you can further enhance them with special essences you can find while exploring), but as long as you keep poking Arkham's resident horrors in the back, you don't really need any of that.
To be fair, Stygian's combat would have been at the very least serviceable if not for the fact that it's extremely, unbelievably slow, with animations that feel like they take forever. If you have any interest in playing Stygian, I would strongly advise you to stay away from combat as much as possible, but always run with a full party, seeing how the game features some unskippable fights. Because of course it does.
So, what else can the game offer apart from combat? Why quests of course. In order to find the Dismal Man, you will have to decipher a cryptic poem and to do so you will be running all over Arkham and involving yourself in other people's business.
And credit where credit is due, some of the game's quests are quite spectacular. Multi-stage, atmospheric and packed to the brim with skill checks that make playing any particular character archetype satisfying. It's a shame then that due to the game's incredibly limited scope there's only a couple of these major quests. The rest mostly just involve a lot of running back and forth.
Speaking of limited scope, the game is quite short for an RPG. It took me roughly 12 hours to beat it and the cliffhanger ending was not at all satisfying. According to the developers, they were faced with some tough decisions and ended up scrapping a good deal of planned content. If we're lucky, at some point we'll get a sequel that continues Stygian's story. For now though, we're left with a game that starts fairly strong but then goes nowhere fast.
Stygian is advertised to offer plenty of replayability, and while on a certain level this is true, because the game is so tiny, that replayability doesn't really matter. Sure, you can tackle the major quests in a variety of ways, but once you're done with them, you will still arrive to the exact same destination.
For some inexplicable reason the game is also designed in such a way where you can't really deviate from the intended path. You can see the area transitions, but you can't interact with them unless you have the right quests in your journal. Because of this, the game seems even smaller than it actually is, to the point where it feels constricting. Which is especially obvious during the later stages where you're just going from one area to the next in a linear fashion.
What's worse, is that because of this, the game's better systems, like crafting and research, don't get enough room to breathe and end up being wasted for the most part.
Stygian's unique hand drawn art style and faded palette do a great job of evoking the feelings of unease and melancholy right until the moment you start moving and see your characters transform into a bunch of poorly animated cardboard cutouts. This is especially comical when due to some bug instead of running forward, your character starts moonwalking at a very brisk pace.
On the other hand, the game's sound design is pretty decent when it comes to both music and sound effects. There are some mixing issues where certain sounds tend to be a bit too loud, but apart from that it's all good in that department.
It's also one of the more buggy games in my recent memory and I played Pathfinder: Kingmaker pretty much at launch. The bugs I encountered range from minor annoyances like not being able to interact with objects without moving first, to some more unpleasant stuff where certain animations refuse to end and as a result you are forced to reload.
Thankfully, reloading takes just a few seconds. Still, the game's save system is another one of those systems that feels like it was designed by aliens. You have ten rotating autosaves plus the save and quit option that you can use at any time. So you essentially can save at will, but you have to jump through hoops to do so. And on top of that, the game doesn't have character profiles. Which means that a few minutes after you create a new character, your old one ceases to exist.
Apparently the developers are currently working on a series of fixes that should improve Stygian's transparency, deal with the numerous bugs, and add the save anywhere feature, but that doesn't change the fact that at this point, playing the game can turn into an exercise in frustration.
Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones shows some flashes of brilliance but is hampered by a severe lack of budget and developer experience. The game combines a couple of great quests and some interesting systems that unfortunately don't get enough room to breathe with some very questionable design decisions and numerous bugs.
Personally, I have a soft spot for ambitious projects that bite off more than they can chew. And if you're in the same boat, chances are you'll find something to enjoy about Stygian. If not, perhaps it would be better for you to wait for Cultic Games' next project.