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RPG Codex Review: Stygian Reign of the Old Ones

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RPG Codex Review: Stygian Reign of the Old Ones

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Sat 12 October 2019, 00:10:04

Tags: Cultic Games; Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones

[Review by Roguey]

Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones is a non-Call of Cthulhu-affiliated fantasy RPG by Turkish developer Cultic Games that takes place in a post-apocalyptic Northeastern American city during the 1920s. A peculiar setting for a group of Turks to explore, but they're welcome to try, considering how there aren't many Americans making cRPGs based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Character Creation and Systems

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My character, appropriately stereotypical.

Fallout's influence on the character system is immediately obvious: both have attributes that go up to 10, and a mix of combat and utility skills in which to invest. Stygian differs from Fallout with archetypes (mandatory backgrounds that determine a minimum attribute score and the three skills that can be raised to their maximum level) and level ceilings on skills to keep you from going all-in on one. Additionally, leveling up only gives you 2 skill points and a choice of a perk with no other benefits. I find that only being able to really invest in two skills makes any given character concept too narrow; I don't believe it would have hurt the game any if you were given three skill points per level like at the beginning. While it's true that you can be joined by up to two companions and one hired henchman (whose character progression and inventory you can't control), none of them can pass dialogue checks for you.

Until the developers release a manual or someone updates a wiki, there's no way to look up a full perk list from the start. Fortunately, there are only a few perks that require attribute metaknowledge at character creation, so it's not too bad.

The inventory is shared across party members, which I like, and it's limited by number (which can be increased with backpacks). The inventory filters have a couple of glaring oversights: rations and kerosene aren't put into any individual category, so they're only seen in the All tab. It took me a while to find those vital items in the store screen.

I don't like crafting in RPGs, so I have no idea how Stygian fares in that aspect. I'm not interested in keeping bits and baubles I find in my inventory when I can sell them and buy actual completed things instead. I did have to craft a couple of suits for plot reasons, which required an annoying amount of backtracking to buy the right components. I suppose if you're a hoarder and/or a purchaser of crafting materials, such backtracking would be unnecessary.

I didn't engage much with the magic system either since spells require sanity to cast which is costly to resupply in the early game; by the time it wasn't a problem, my caster had become adept enough in melee fighting that I didn't need to bother with it. Furthermore, the spells, while nice to look at, aren't particularly interesting in their effects, and the ability to cast buff spells outside of combat could have been conveyed better.

Stygian makes some gamey balance decisions when it comes to melee versus ranged combat; surrounding an enemy and bashing it with melee weapons is more effective than firing four guns at a distance on account of the penalties one receives from being flanked and attacked from the rear. I'm glad melee is viable, and my gunslinger still felt effective (especially since I could fire a pistol up to three times in one turn after acquiring a perk and potentially four times during turns when I received bonus action points for rolling extra high initiative).

Unfortunately, the game has that laggy Unity engine feeling when navigating menus and engaging in combat. Slow animations and targeting mishaps are also a problem during battle; good luck moving to a square with a dead body placed on it without spending action points looting the dead body. Given how simple the combat is, it would have been better if Stygian had gone with a menu-based style instead (think Wizardry and classic Japanese RPGs); at least then it'd go faster.

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All combat screens look like this more or less.

That said, one good feature of the combat system is the ability to make a progressive escape once you've killed enough opponents. It's rather gamey, but it's nice to not have to kill everybody once it's clear you've already won; you only miss out on any loot you haven't collected yourself, which is a fair trade-off. It's also easy enough to make a normal retreat from a fight, though you won't get any experience from it, and the enemies will still be there if it wasn't an ambush or a story-based fight where a getaway makes sense.

Controversial Features

The first controversial decision you'll notice is that there is no manual saving; only ten rolling autosaves and save-and-quit (which are also part of the roll, so they can be lost). There also aren't any save profiles, meaning if you want to try out another character before finishing, all your progress is lost. The developers have promised to patch this out, but as it is now, it's not so bad (other than the lack of profiles). Areas are small enough so that saves are frequent, and there's never more than one combat encounter per map. I lived with my bad substance-addiction rolls and some of my less-than-ideal decisions and made it to the end.

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Prostitutes can restore a bit of your sanity for a price.

The second is the bane of numerous RPG players: time limits. If you go without rations, you'll go hungry, get stat penalties, and eventually starve to death. If you go without sleep, you'll get fatigued and eventually end up with heavier stat penalties, and resting is never free, requiring either money or camping supplies (which are rarely found in the world itself). Making matters worse, the passage of time is opaque to the player, though the developers claim the meters remain paused during dialogue, menu screens, and combat. A few hours in, you'll find yourself rolling in enough money that these will be mere nuisance mechanics, but I don't believe they belong here to begin with. Why make any player feel rushed? First, this has a relatively short length for a role-playing game. Second, it isn't a hardcore dungeon crawl or survival game. Third, there are a lot of text descriptions in the world one can read that a time limit will make one want to avoid entirely. It's like tacking on a day/night cycle and a periodically-draining blood meter to Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines; just obnoxious. It's also not like there are a lack of strategic gameplay elements; the management of health and sanity meters is sufficient.

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The map screen and a Python reference.

Much less severe is the requirement for a kerosene lamp and fuel to explore pitch-black areas. While it's obnoxious how you can't run with one equipped, you only need it for two places (one of those being a short hallway with no combat encounters) and a handful of random world map events. Some might take issue with how "pitch-black" doesn't appear as such to the player, but I don't see it as a big deal; my character is not me.

There's an angst meter that increases whenever you witness something depressing, perform a malicious action, kill an opponent, or enter a new turn in combat. Accumulate enough angst and you have to select a permanent character penalty from a list. It won't make the game unwinnable, so deal with it; I did, and my character was a self-interested hitman who didn't shy away from combat and started off halfway to the first angst penalty.

All wearable magic items start out with their properties unknown, though their effects work just fine if you equip them anyway. You can pay a specific shopkeeper to learn their benefits, but you have to research any possible maledictions yourself while resting. This doesn't bother me in the slightest, though casual players will be irate and look up the stats in an online guide if they can.

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The unhappy merchant.

The campaign itself lacks the freedom one might expect from something that looks like Fallout on character creation. You can't go around killing or stealing from random people. You don't have the freedom to explore areas that haven't been marked on your map. Sidequests are staggered out at set intervals so one doesn't become overwhelmed with them from the start. It feels a lot like a 2D Bloodlines in terms of structure and the freedom within that structure; adjust your expectations accordingly.

Last and least, there's no easy way to import custom portraits if none of the ones available suit your liking. This has never been a concern for me, but it should still be available as an accommodation for those who want to use their own portraits.

Art and Sound

The art is mostly great. While characters have a too-clean-looking Flash-animated appearance, the environment art looks stellar, giving you the feeling of navigating a grim and gritty comic book. The user interface and menus have a solid skeuomorphic art style. Many of the painted portraits look fine too; wish I could say the same for the Kickstarter backer portraits, but since there were so many, they ended up giving them quick, obvious Photoshop jobs. Moreover, while the gory scenes look quite disturbing, the monster designs come across as too cartoony to be horrific.

The music's pretty good too, with context-appropriate ambient tracks for the world and period-appropriate jazz for populated interiors. Sound effects don't sound terrible. I'm not a fan of the narrator's voice acting performance in the opening and closing cinematics, though fortunately these are the only sections with voice-over.

Content

When it comes to setting, Stygian makes the same mistake games like Neverwinter Nights, Bloodlines, and Shadowrun Returns did by cramming in as many references as it possibly can, turning it into a Lovecraft theme park. Cthulhu, Randolph Carter, The Outsider, one of Herbert West's reanimated zombies, Pickman's models, the Terrible Old Man and the Strange High House in the Mist, the Dreamlands, the Witch House, the Mi-Go, the Elder Things, they're all here. I would prefer a more focused story that relies less on direct references, though I recognize the temptation is high to put in everything you can on your first and perhaps only attempt at an adaptation.

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Lovecraft meets Twin Peaks: The Return.

It's not all bad. The writing isn't brilliant or deep, but it is superficially entertaining and well-paced, which is a low bar many other modern traditional RPGs have been unable to reach. You won't get plagued by walls of exposition and prose descriptions during dialogue here. There are a few typos and English-as-a-Second-Language mishaps here and there. If your character goes insane, sometimes your dialogue options are replaced with Malkavian-esque lines which can be funny but are occasionally too childish. Sometimes non-player characters react specifically to the different line; other times their reaction remains unchanged. There are a good number of other "false" flavor options that lead to the same dialogue node, which is a shame.

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I didn't even have any .45 guns at the time, but my character is crazy, so I'll let it slide.

Quest design isn't anything too ambitious: you find plot coupons, investigate a murder, infiltrate a cult, and engage in other Lovecraftian activities. How you're able to carry out these tasks is determined by your character's skills; you'll be locked out of certain interactions if you don't have the right build for it, but there's always a way through. There can be quite a bit of combat, but most of your time is spent walking and interacting with people and objects. As I wrote earlier, Stygian reminds me a lot of the first few hubs in Bloodlines; there's quite a bit of freedom in terms of supported character concepts and playstyles, but the story is on rails with only cosmetic narrative reactivity, no significant branches.

While the journal does give directions, it doesn't hold your hand; there's no quest compass here, so there were times where I felt lost as to what to do next, though I wasn't actually lost since exploring the world and following a thread on any active quest would continue the plot. It's a good feeling rarely found these days.

The downside of all this investigating is that there's a lot of backtracking between areas and the interiors within them. You also have to regularly offload all the stuff you've been picking up at up to seven shops that buy and sell different things.

Itemization isn't particularly noteworthy. There's no armor, so you have to rely on magic artifacts for various boosts. I did find a magic suit in a locked chest that increased my agility by one point, which was nice. I also used a survival-score-boosting switchblade to win a drinking contest. There are plenty of addictive drugs to use in combat, but I didn't bother, sticking only to laudanum shots for healing, and whiskey and cigarettes to restore sanity (of course my character ended up addicted to all of them). I found it peculiar how a better model of a .22 gun and a .38 gun had the same exact stats even though the .38 bullets cost more. I'm not fond of item redundancy.

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A M1910 using .38 ammunition? Josh "New Vegas" Sawyer disapproves.

The game encourages you to wear a mask to obscure your identity before initiating combat with mobsters or cultists. Since I always wore one when I went up against mobsters and never fought any cultists, I wouldn't be able to say what the consequences of not wearing one are.

The combat encounters themselves are incredibly lazy. The first potential fight in the game is against six people. Then you enter an abandoned bank and fight six lunatics up to three times. This is what you can expect to experience for the rest of the game. To the developers' partial credit, the bank had one additional encounter in the demo that was seemingly removed due to negative feedback. Additionally, there are only three of these lousy copy-paste-filled combat crawls (i.e. any location with multiple battles in succession), but going through them is still far more annoying than the usual one-and-done areas.

In addition to being lazy, the encounters are also pretty easy. Granted, I made a combat-oriented character, and I have an above-average (though not great) understanding of how to play cRPGs. There were only two fights that gave me trouble; the first involved reinforcements that pop in behind you after two turns, and the second was an annoying gimmick boss where reinforcements are constantly trickling in behind you while you have to dig up the boss before it can be damaged. Both were manageable once I figured out the ideal positioning within the environment.

Bad news for would-be brave diplomats: you can't totally avoid combat in Stygian. I encountered 21 battles, and you can sneak and potentially talk your way past most of them, but there were at least two on the critical path that can't be avoided (one of which is that annoying gimmick boss I just mentioned). A solo run seems implausible if not impossible on account of that one fight.

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A developer self-insert.

At least the endgame isn't an annoying combat crawl in its entirety. Unfortunately, what it does have is comparably annoying: a series of rooms where you have to do the same time-padding pattern matching puzzle over and over again. After a brief reprieve, you're thrown into an area where you have to navigate around real-time patrols. Cultic made the same mistake here Harebrained Schemes did with Shadowrun: Hong Kong; real-time stealth gameplay is inappropriate and out of place in a turn-based RPG. It's like the developers forgot they were making an RPG and decided to make an adventure game complete with stereotypical action-oriented gimmicks.

I'll avoid spoiling the details of the ending, but as Cultic themselves confirmed before release, it ends on a cliffhanger after about 20 hours. It stops after a dramatic moment, but it's not a proper climax by any means. The developers had a lot of hubris and optimism to end it like this; it was certainly within their ability to rewrite the story to give it a more definite ending with what they had available. Instead what we have is comparable to Bloodlines if it just suddenly stopped after the sewers and played a cinematic that teased what to expect in Chinatown. It's an Early Access or Episode 1 release that doesn't label itself as such, which is a dishonorable way to release a game.

Conclusion

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My character at the end. A cursed, exhausted, psychopathic, chain-smoking, opioid-addicted alcoholic with no self-respect and a bad fever. Sounds about right for a Lovecraft protagonist.

Stygian contains roughly 20 hours of story-driven quests with a good amount of role-playing options, lousy combat, inappropriate game mechanics, a janky-feeling user interface, and moderately decent writing with no payoff. It was in development for four years with a team of over 20 people. By comparison, Fallout was made by up to 30 people in over three years, and Arcanum was made by a core team of about a dozen in a similar amount of time. Those certainly weren't well-managed projects, but they do show the value of teams who have people with vocational knowledge, considering how those games offer a lot more than what Stygian does. This isn't a rough diamond; it's an interesting failed experiment. Cultic had admirable intentions, but their ambitions exceeded their abilities. If they're given the chance to make another RPG or continue this one, I hope they apply the knowledge they learned from this experience.

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