VGB Feature: Styx: Shards of Darkness Interview with Cyanide Studios Project Manager Guillaume Blanchard

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Styx, the loveably brash and foul-mouthed goblin thief who burst onto the scene in Of Orcs and Men before landing his debut solo starring role in stealth infiltration game Master of Shadows, is coming back to show off his mastery of the art of sneaky-sneaky in Shards of Darkness. Guillaume Blanchard, Project Manager for developer Cyanide Studios, has crept out of the shadows to briefly fill us in on more details about Styx’s stealth follow-up, which is planned for release sometime this year on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

VGBlogger: Where does Shards of Darkness take place in the series chronology? Is it directly after Master of Shadows and still before Of Orcs and Men?

Guillaume Blanchard: Shards of Darkness is the sequel to Master of Shadows, set 50 years later, but still takes place before the events Of Orcs and Men. Styx is a very old goblin!

VGB: What is Styx in to now that he’s free from the Tower of Akenash, and what are these shards of darkness eluded to by the title? And now that his origin story has been told, how will we see his character continue to grow?

GB: Styx will travel to very different places from those seen in the first game. Human towns, airships, and the underground world of the Dark elves will all be explored by our favorite goblin. The titular “Shards of Darkness” represent the dangerous side of a new source of power for Styx – Quartz.

Master of Shadows was the search for an identity. In Shards of Darkness, Styx has to confront the reality of who he is, and come accept himself.

VGB: How much more open-ended are the new environments compared to those in Master of Shadows? Is verticality still the primary level design focus?

GB: Level design is one of the key things people enjoyed in the first game, so it was important we kept this for the sequel. Prepare to sneak into huge, open and vertical levels! The improvements we brought to this sequel are more a question of diversity and choice, rather than just larger levels. We added new ways to enjoy the verticality, like swinging and sliding ropes – of course, this means enemies will also be able to creatively jump and climb the environments to catch Styx.

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VGB: Now that the environment is removed from the confinement of the Akenash tower, has the mission progression flow changed at all? Does Styx still have a secret home base hub to visit between missions?

GB: We wanted to keep the same rhythm found in Master of Shadows – alternating between levels that demand constant attention of the player to survive, and safety zones where the character can be trained peacefully. This will not prevent Styx from travelling a lot in this new game.

VGB: Are there new ways to do “arranged accident” kills and use the environment to distract/kill guards?

GB: Yes! We added new kill moves, new items (like mine or distraction glass objects) and new objects that can be booby-trapped to neutralize enemies.

VGB: The first game had some finicky ledge detection at times. Have you been able to make improvements on the fluidity and responsiveness of Styx’s interactions and movements through the world?

GB: The “Three C’s” (Character, Controller, Camera) were our primary focal points for this sequel. We spent a lot of time ensuring the game is accurate, responsive and attractive. We are very happy with the result.

VGB: Is Styx able to learn any new Amber powers this time around? Will all of the original powers be returning?

GB: You will be able to use all powers from the first game with some improvement. We also extended those powers to allow for more interesting strategies. For example, there is a new power that allows the player to teleport to their clone. You can use it as a recall place, as a safety net when trying particularly dangerous moves or to teleport between locations that both demand your attention.

VGB: What can players expect from the game’s RPG elements? Any changes or expansions or tweaks to the skill tree and SP system from before?

GB: We improved the skill tree by providing more skills with more variety. The insignia now have 3 levels of success that will give more or less skill points (bronze, silver, gold).

We also added a crafting system. Exploration will be reward by finding ingredients scattered around the levels. As ingredients are shared by the items you can craft, you will have to make some choice according to the way you plan to play a level.

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VGB: What other new tools and tricks of the trade has Styx added to his repertoire? We already know about additions like rope climbing/swinging and using his dagger as a zip-line–are there any others that you’re able to reveal for us at this time?

GB: New items (traps, distraction items, cocoons to create clones at distance, etc.), new skills, new kill moves, new powers (teleportation), crafting, ropes (swing, climb, slide) and many more.

VGB: As a quick follow-up to the previous question, will Styx be able to do dropping stealth kills from a zip-line or rope swing?

GB: You can… if you are skilled enough. 🙂

VGB: On a more nuanced level, in what ways have the core stealth mechanics been refined?

GB: The very basics of the stealth mechanics are intact from the original: it’s still a pure stealth game, where you have to be careful not to be seen or heard by enemies in order to survive a dangerous world. However, there are certainly additions and refinements. We even added a new sense to some enemies. Dwarfs, with their big noses, are able to smell goblins and to track them. With this kind of enemy you must be careful of any smells you might leave in your wake.

We also changed the AI detection system to feel far more realistic. For example, when it comes to lighting, you are no longer “in full light” or “in full darkness”. The AI will instead react according to your real lighting level.

VGB: Will Shards of Darkness do anything different from the dueling mechanic or make Styx any more capable of defending himself if detected? Or is the aim still to keep a pure stealth focus by discouraging direct confrontation?

GB: It’s all about pure stealth! Enemies will no longer grab you in a combat mode like in Master of Shadows. There isn’t a combat system in Shards of Darkness – instead you can use a parry-riposte mechanism to stun an enemy, before choosing whether to finish them off or flee.

In goblin mode (hardest difficulty level) you will be instantly killed by any enemies in melee. Even in other difficulty levels, confront an enemy is never the easiest way to progress through the environments.

VGB: What has upgrading to Unreal Engine 4 from Unreal Engine 3 allowed you to do that maybe wasn’t possible in the previous game and not only enhances the graphical fidelity but also the gameplay? For instance, I imagine you’re able to create even more dynamic lighting and shadows (key factors in a stealth game)?

GB: Dynamism is definitively the biggest improvement that Unreal Engine 4 brought for us. Dynamism in terms of lighting, but also with moving elements in levels (forcing the player to adapt to a living environment).

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VGB: Will the game offer similar methods for replaying missions like the first game’s side objectives, insignias for collecting/pickpocketing coins, doing speedruns, and ghosting, as well as the secret relic collectibles?

GB: Yes, but we’ve improved the Challenge mode by creating 3 levels of Insignia (bronze, silver, gold). So you will, for example, still have a reward if you collect all tokens but 1. We also added a scoring system to allow a competitive challenge that isn’t just about speed.

VGB: While a bigger budget and loftier ambitions are definitely a good thing (and congrats on the success of the first game by the way–it’s one of my personal favorite games of the past few years!), they can also lead to greater expectations and the possibility to maybe push things too far. With that said, how challenging is it to maintain a balance between improving upon the original game without losing sight of what made it so well received?

GB: We spent a long time deeply analyzing what players enjoyed in Master of Shadows. We were pleased to find they generally liked what we like: pure stealth gameplay, where the skill and smart play are the most important elements to succeed. When the development team’s expectations are in line with player expectations, it’s easier to stay focused.

Our goal is to keep the same recipe, but improve all the ingredients.

VGB: Is there any news to report yet on a more specific target for release? How far along would you say development is at this time?

GB: We are finishing up development, and starting on polishing and debugging. The game will be released when we feel it’s done. This year. 🙂

VGB: Can’t wait to see how it turns out. Thanks for your time!

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!