Fantasy and science fiction can be literal as well as allegorical and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a monster like a giant squid for what it is, as well as searching for metaphor.
H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos is one of those things that’s bound to wear out its welcome eventually just out of sheer nerd overuse. Y’know, like bacon, the 1980s, side-scrolling platformers with pixel graphics… that kind of thing.
For now, though, as the arbiter of what’s cool and uncool, I can say with authority that Lovecraft is still pretty cool. As a result, games based on Lovecraft are also pretty cool, so that’s where we come to Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones, a Black Isle-style RPG that’s all about squid-faced horror and how you choose to deal with it.
The town of Arkham has been unceremoniously snatched out of reality. That means all its inhabitants came along with it, you included. There’s numerous ramifications to this – naturally there’s monsters, people have gone insane, suicide has become more and more common and all that jazz, but there’s also logistical concerns to think about. Food shortages are a serious problem now, for instance, and paper currency has been replaced by cigarettes as a bartering tool. What’s more, the human inhabitants of Arkham might be worse than the monsters between the madmen and Mafiosos that now run the town. Despite all this, it’s up to you to figure out what’s going on and maybe work out a way to solve things.
Maybe. This is Lovecraft. I wouldn’t count on it.
Let’s get the somewhat stinky bits out of the way first: Stygian walks a fine line between looking creepy and unimpressive. Environment design is, almost without exception, fantastic. Characters and monsters are a little less so. Stygian’s real issue is animation, though, as characters flail about like puppets. This might have been an effort to make the experience more unsettling, but in reality, Stygian looks great in still images… and looks like a Flash game from the mid-2000s in motion. That’s not the end of the world, of course, since this is an RPG and great graphics aren’t why you’re here, but a little more polish on this front would have been nice.
If you’ve played a horror game in the past ten years or so you’ve got an idea of what you’re getting into with Stygian’s audio. Creaking? Rattling? Spooooooky tones? We’ve got ’em all, they’re present and accounted for. There’s not quite as much voice acting as I’d have liked, but given this game didn’t have a big heap of cash behind it, it’s not surprising that I had to do a lot of the voicing in my head. A lot of people mentally sounded like Sean Connery as a result. Not quite so spooky, but very charming.
If you’re not here for the visuals, maybe you’re here for some cerebral RPG gameplay? Stygian does a pretty decent job on this front. Character creation is fairly in-depth and there are numerous options to tweak your character to your liking. You can choose your character’s profession, their skills, interesting points from their background, their age… the works, really. This is a good thing and a bad thing; while it’s nice to have so many avenues available, Stygian doesn’t do a great job of telegraphing the kind of situations you’re going to find yourself in.
The biggest way that this can bite you lies in Stygian’s combat, which is a turn-based affair most reminiscent of the Heroes of Might and Magic series. Characters have both health and sanity scores and you’ll often run into baddies who would like to divest you of both; running out of either means you’re through, so it’s best to avoid that. Lovecraft fans are going to come in expecting to get the most mileage out of investigative skills, and while they aren’t necessarily wrong, you’re going to have to fight sooner or later. Combat is absolutely not playing around in Stygian. Characters without combat or occult skills (for combat-related magic) are at a severe disadvantage.
When an early NPC offers to join your party and fight for you in exchange for a modest cigarette payment, don’t hestitate; it might be the wisest investment you’ll make if you aren’t a combat-heavy bruiser. Mercifully, you don’t always have to completely win a fight – often you just have to do enough that the game allows you to perform a “Progression Escape,” essentially letting the enemy go and gaining full experience for doing so.
If you can deal with the half-baked combat, though, there’s plenty of interesting flavor and story to enjoy. Fair warning: Stygian is dark, even by the standards of this theme, so come in expecting some potentially disturbing content. Nobody is going to make it through Arkham unscathed. You’ll go mad. You’ll become an alcoholic wreck. You’ll gain Angst, a stat that causes permanent negative traits if you let it accumulate too far.
If you’re the kind of player who prefers to keep their characters pristine and pure, Stygian’s going to hurt your very soul. As for the plot, without spoiling it too much, this is about as Lovecraft as games get without actually being titled “Call of Cthulhu,” so you’re in good hands here.
For my money, the most unique thing about Stygian isn’t that it’s a Lovecraft-themed game. That’s great, don’t get me wrong, but there are plenty of games with Lovecraft influences. No, Stygian’s unique in that it portrays a surprisingly realistic interpretation of a city driven to the brink by both the horrors of the unknown and the scarcity of isolation. Resources are hard to come by. The Mafia runs the show and characters are desperate, your party included; by the time the credits roll it’s almost inevitable you’ll be leading a team of raving, drug-addicted, occult-maddened lunatics, to say nothing of your own hero. It’s fascinating, perhaps more so than the cosmic horror.
As mentioned, the combat is absolutely brutal. You’ll die, die and die again until you hit upon a build that can survive the overwhelming odds you’re thrown up against, particularly in the early game. While this is a very Cthulhu Mythos sort of thing to do – pitting regular humans against forces they can’t possibly hope to defeat – it does make for a pretty tough game. Save early, save often and expect to have to replay some fights due to random missing and low damage rolls. Further, this can have an effect on your character outside of combat as well. Let your character lose a little too much sanity and, well… let’s say your diplomatic skills might take a hit.
On the other hand, messing around with builds is pretty good fun and Stygian offers a fair amount of options that support different types of skills. I didn’t find too many options that felt like they weren’t worth taking. Nearly every quest has options allowing for various types of character to solve them in their own unique ways – though, again, you’re really best off having at least one combat option. What’s more, since you choose a character’s Belief at the start of the game, you’ve got a guide for how to roleplay each new hero you put together. Following those roadmaps will make for a fresh experience each time you take the game for a spin.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
Stygian isn’t a game for everyone. “Rough around the edges” is going a little gentle here. The animation is iffy, combat is something of a mess, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t being edgy for the sake of edginess at times. On the other hand, it’s a full-fledged choice-driven RPG of the sort that’s rarely made these days. If you ever wanted to be trapped in a horrible 1920s nightmare abyss trading your last cigarettes for some moldy bread, well… here you go!
We’d like to thank Cultic Games and 1C Entertainment for offering us a copy of their game in exchange for this honest review.
Aggregated Score: 7.6
The Infernal Accountant Mage believes the pen is mightier than the sword…well, depending on how sharp the pen and sword are. A child of the ’90s and a prolific writer, he strews his work about like Legos made of words, just waiting for your brain to step on them. He enjoys a devilish challenge, so when it comes to talking about some of the more difficult games out there, you might just run into the Infernal Accountant Mage. Some advice: hold on to your soul around this guy, and don’t sign anything. Read more at popzara.com
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