Game name: Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones
Release date: September 26, 2019
Available on: Steam
Developer: Cultic Games
Publisher: 1C Entertainment
Like the madmen that feature so heavily in Lovecraft’s works, I’m often drawn to things that will chip away at my sanity bit by bit until it finally breaks down. At least that’s what it feels like after playing so many games inspired by Mr. Lovecraft’s prose (I’ve even reviewed a few on this very site). There’s always something great hiding under mechanics that make me wonder if something went horribly wrong during development, and invariably, I keep going until the end, because in some cases, the insanity that awaits at the bottom of the abyss is worth all the suffering we might have endured along the way. Today, it’s time to take a look at Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones, an old-school RPG set in the city of Arkham, and full of brushes with madness. Will it be worth the trip to this damned city? Join me as I try to answer that all-important question over the next paragraphs.
Since Stygian is a story-heavy title where most of our enjoyment comes from exploring the world and interacting with people, I’ll try to avoid spoilers. And what a world this is! The city of Arkham has been transported to a different dimension, one where our darkest nightmares are real and the old gods routinely alter our perception, twisting everything and condemning even the strongest of wills to the horrors of madness. The government is gone, and in its place, the Mob rules with an iron fist, using cultists as its muscle. We are not in this place as traditional heroes, because the point for heroics has already passed (if it ever existed, of which, I have my doubts). Our only objective is to try to understand what’s going on with a weird dream we have, and maybe gain some closure on certain aspects of our past life before we got stuck in this living hell.
As usual with most RPGs, before we start our adventure we’ll have to create a character. The choices we make here will define our playthrough in many ways, since there is a sanity system that will take our beliefs (or at least the ones we decided our character would have) into account at every move, rewarding us for doing things that would make sense for the kind of person we are supposed to be. This might not seem all that unusual at a glance, but I thought that the way the developers implemented it was actually pretty clever, and it fits the theme of the game like a glove. This doesn’t mean we are forced down a particular play-style, but, considering that sanity is the thing we’ll be bleeding the most, straying too far from the path we set for ourselves at the beginning of the game might not be a great idea. Of course beliefs aren’t the only thing that defines a character, so we’ll also have to pick an archetype (think of it as a class, of which there are eight to choose from, each with several sub-classes that might give us buffs for certain things, while also adding debuffs for others). Our choice of archetype will directly influence the way we play the game, and will also be the main source of replayability, since the main story is heavily scripted. Aside from our background and class, we can also customize our appearance and choose our gender (and this will affect the way some characters deal with us, a nice touch that makes a lot of sense in an RPG set in the 1920s).
Depending on the kind of character we create, certain aspects of the game will be harder than usual for us, with combat being the biggest hurdle to overcome for builds where charisma and negotiation are the priority (which, I’ll confess, is my way to go in most RPGs). Thankfully, we won’t need to face the horrors of the Abyss on our own all the time, since there are a few companions that can be recruited to help deal with the threats we’ll face at every step of the way. These companions have their own backstory that can be extracted from them over time, although I felt that they were a bit “under-cooked” when it comes to character development. Aside from the recruitable characters (who will be part of our party, so we can adjust their equipment freely), there are also bodyguards for hire, who’ll take daily payments of cigarettes (the game’s currency) in exchange for their protection (and believe me, in a town run by the Mob you definitely need protection).
The other thing that can help us survive a little bit longer is the crafting system, which is quite detailed and will also depend on our character’s stats. Through crafting, we can build countless objects that will improve our chances (and our companions’) every time we have to face the horrors that are now commonplace in this condemned town. Guns, medicine, clothing items, you name it, you can probably craft it. Of course, you need to find blueprints, spend resources, and have the required stats to craft whatever it is you are trying to make. Food will also be important to survive (we are human, after all!), so it’s important to keep a healthy balance whenever thinking about going on a crafting spree.
So far, so normal, right? That’s because the character creation, crafting and companion systems are basically the last “sane” moments in Stygian, before the game starts deviating from standard RPG fare and delving deeper into Lovecraftian madness. I’d say that the best exponent of this madness would be the combat system, as it works well enough as a tool used to create a very oppressive atmosphere, while also being somewhat cumbersome to the actual player and not the character, up to the point where I dreaded the start of combat at every twist and turn, but also knew that it was coming, whether I liked it or not. You see, the combat system is simple enough, with battles taking place on hexagonal grids with clearly marked cover areas and an escape route that can be taken should we wish to avoid getting rid of all the enemies on screen. Every time we enter a battlefield the action switches from real time to turn-based and we have a number of action points (based on our states) that we can spend doing different actions, such as moving, shooting, punching, healing, adjusting our inventory, etc. Attacks can inflict status effects on those affected, cover will improve our chances of dodging a shot/stab attempt, and there’s a spell system. Still a bit too normal, right? Well, enemy attacks will not only affect our health, but will also build up angst. Build up enough angst, and you get perks, though not necessarily the kind of perks you might have been looking for. This angst level is something we’ll have to live with for the whole game, since I found no way of decreasing it, and it seems to be an indicator of how far gone our character really is (even winning battles leads to an increase in the angst meter, as I assume our character knows there is no end to the fighting, and they’ll be back on the fray soon). Oh, and there are certain occult artifacts that might also screw up our balance here, so be on your guard before equipping suspicious stuff.
Remember that spell system I mentioned? Well, that’s also something we have to be wary of, since spells run on our sanity (something that makes a lot of sense, considering the game’s setting). So in order to stay sane we’ll have to restrict our spell-casting as much as possible, and use drugs (or go see a psychologist) to restore what we have lost. The beliefs system I mentioned during the character creation part of this review? That also comes into play here, as choosing conversation options aligned with our protagonist’s beliefs will also restore some lost sanity, a very handy perk after a few battles. If we choose to ignore the sanity loss, we’ll end up looking at some pretty interesting things as our character’s mental health further deteriorates, but we’ll also build up angst, leading to an increase on perks we do not want to have (and thus, increasing the game’s difficulty over time). While I wouldn’t recommend going this route for a first playthrough, it’s interesting enough should you wish to replay the game.
And while we are on the topic of replayability, I think that aside from the many different ways we can build our character, or the insanity system, the biggest incentive to get through Stygian again is its world building. There are very few games that truly “get” the madness of Lovecraft’s stories, and even fewer can translate it into images. If there’s something that Cultic Games are great at, it’s that, in my opinion. The scrappy hand-drawn art can convey otherworldly horrors far better than hyper-realistic graphics, and even the not-so-smooth battle animations help here, since it completely sells the illusion of playing as a character that’s slowly losing their last shreds of sanity to the things they’ve witnessed in the past week. Aside from grammatical errors or spelling mistakes, the lore we’ll find as we read abandoned letters or talk to people is also very much on point for the kind of game we are playing.
While so far I’ve been able to find excuses to some of the game’s weakest parts, there is an area where I can’t find any, and you will probably agree with me even before starting the game. Which area is that? Its stability. This is a VERY buggy game (I was even locked out of the final section for a while due to a particularly nasty bug that was also confirmed by a friend who ended up watching the game’s ending on Youtube). The developers are quite active on the Steam forums though, and they have stated their commitment to fixing all of its technical issues, as well as adding a much-needed tutorial system.
And with those pesky things out of the way, it’s time for the final verdict. Overall, even if it does some things that I truly despise in other games, Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones succeeds in a task many have failed, as it faithfully adapts Lovecraft’s works into an old-school RPG that will keep fans entertained for hours on end. Sure, there are lots of rough edges, and many patches will be required to fix the bugs, but at the same time, doesn’t that make a lot of sense for a game about unknowable horrors and gradual loss of sanity? I think it does.
8/10 – Very good.