Review: Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones
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More and more, developers are finding ways to capture the key elements of cosmic horror in Lovecraft’s work. The creeping dread, the inescapable doom, the unknowable terror, all these notions are finding their ways into more games, and in more novel ways. Stygian proposes to tackle the subject of Lovecraft in one of the most ambitious ways, by allowing you to be your own character in a role-playing game thick with eldritch horrors. It’s an interesting challenge, merging the open nature of western RPGs with the deeply personal terrors of Lovecraft, but Stygian makes it work. It does so with some very broad strokes, and some questionable designs, but the dark satisfaction I get from the result is unquestionable.
The roaring 20s have come to an end in the doomed town of Kingsport, giving way to a roar of unearthly origin. The city has been ripped from the known universe and deposited in a realm of unspeakable creatures and grim tidings. Those residents who survived the transition are simply waiting to die, whether lorded over by the mob that runs the remains of society or whisked away in the night by the deranged cultists across the river. In this terrible place you find yourself haunted by dreams of the Dismal Man as he ushers you towards an unknown but inescapable fate. With no hope of salvation, you must follow the strange, twisting trail through the secrets of Kingsport, Arkham, and the awful world that is now your home.
Right away, I was impressed with how Stygian pulls absolutely no punches with its setting. Other horror games like to play coy with their Lovecraftian roots but this one drops you right into a world where the monsters are real, and kicking around in the warehouse across the street. You get to see how people cope with the unmanageable weight of old gods and forgotten beasts bearing down on them, and as you can imagine, it’s not pretty. Between the murderous gangsters and bloodthirsty cultists, death can come at a moment’s notice for anyone. And those who are spared their attentions are never far from plunging into madness themselves.
So what hope do you have in this living hell? Well, character creation gives you plenty of options that offer a window into what the game expects of you. Aside from the standard RPG conventions of picking your gender, attributes, and skills, there are a number of key features you can customize. Your age determines whether your attributes or skills are more advanced, and your background can provide all kinds of unique gameplay options like being an ex-criminal who knows how to talk to mobsters, or faculty from the Miskatonic University who will have special insight into the more unusual happenings. But by far the most interesting choice is your values, which encourage you to roleplay certain goals for the sake of your sanity. Sanity is not easy to restore, but making dialog and quest choices that fit with your values like Materialistic or Righteous will restore sanity on the spot. You can even be a Nihilist, who doesn’t get sanity back from any choices, but is more resistant to losing it in the first place.
Managing your health and sanity will be a primary concern throughout the game, because the mechanics of threats and combat are just as unforgiving as the setting would imply. You don’t have very deep pools of either and items to restore them, like laudanum, liquor, or opium, obviously have dire side effects. Resting can restore quite a bit, as you get rest activities like studying or socializing at these times, but it’s always going to be an uphill battle to keep your grip. Many enemies damage your sanity just by existing, and chance encounters with the occult or other horrific scenes can sap sanity very quickly. Playing to your strengths will be key, whether that be through dialog options, bartering for goods you need, or avoiding trouble in the first place.
Stygian offers you an impressive number of approaches to most situations, and the skill system is focused enough that it’s hard to completely mess up a character. Speechcraft and Investigation have obvious applications, while experience with occult or academic topics can provide special edges in certain situations. If you’re skilled in combat you’ll have the option to fight it out, though the turn-based tactical battles can drag a bit and tend to be very costly in terms of life and sanity. Stealth is another option, as well as turning up specific items or evidence for the right situation. Dialog is where I’ve been doing most of my work, and it’s a great mix of solid writing, interesting options, and sudden interjections by some madness I’m suffering where I’ll start ranting like a madman. Your background can influence dialog heavily as well, so there’s just as little telling what you’re going to say as the troubled folks you’re grilling.
The first few hours of the game are sure to feel like a cosmic horror playground thanks to this broad approach to game design, and you’ll soon slip into the niche that’s right for your character. Eventually though, you’re bound to reach a sticking point in your quests. The main thrust of the game basically comes down to four key quests, and there are points in all of them that can hang players up either from the next step being unclear, or the next challenge seeming insurmountable. It’s generally true that the solution is just in a place you haven’t looked or down to a skill you haven’t thought to make use of, but in my case I had to leave town and wander in the wilderness a bit for my answer and that’s not exactly intuitive game design. Stygian isn’t a particularly hard game but it definitely feels hard when you’re still learning about the world, and especially when your options seem to narrow too much, even though they haven’t really.
There are other technical issues that might impact your enjoyment of this grim adventure. Chief among them is that there’s no manual saving. None. You save when you quit, and the game usually auto-saves at scene transitions. This introduces a whole host of problems, not the least of which being that you can only play one character at a time, but fortunately the developers are aware of how inadvisable this is and are working on a real save system. The interface itself can be pretty touchy as well, with interaction points for NPCs and enemies especially being a bit out of whack and requiring a little pixel-hunting to find the right spot to click on. Also, without spoiling anything, I can tell you that the ending doesn’t resolve a whole lot of what’s going on here and is clearly setting up for a series, which hopefully gets made.
Despite these concerns, I’m finding Stygian to be remarkably engrossing as both an RPG and a Lovecraft tale. It borrows a lot of the stories wholesale and shoves them together into the world, but the setting is creative and open enough to allow for plenty of cosmic horror’s greatest hits to coexist. The art sells it really well, with the rather gross and gribbley style bringing the dingy streets and crumbling buildings to life around your characters. Sound design is a little hit-or-miss, especially with the inconsistent soundtrack, but it mostly does what is needed. It’s an indie game through and through, but an ambitious one that makes good on a lot of that ambition. Stygian gives you a wide array of tools to battle the inevitable with, and while your fate may be sealed, it’s going to be a wild ride reaching it.