ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!…
Ahem… *summons cultist pastor voice*
Dear friends, we gather here today to celebrate the birth of our Gospel. Indeed, our gospel of madness and death has come. For no man is beyond the insanity that follows the old gods. The elder things. The black night has come, my friends, and it will relieve you of the burden you all carry. The burden of our sanity. But do not fear my friends, know that mankind is only spec in the vast void of the cosmos. While we drank and paid no mind, basking in the warm glow of our ignorance, we forgot our place.
Some of us, the chosen few, knew of our position among the stars! They tried to warn us! They tried to save us, even at the cost of their minds! But they failed, and the time to pay our debts has finally come! Yog-Sothoth watches and waits, for he is the gate and the key! The King shows us his Magnum opus, for he is the Shepard of Madness! Nyarlathotep awakes, spreading decay and death in his wake! The Yith skulk and stalk, searching for a way to turn back the clock! But great dead Cthulhu has risen from R’lyeh and our time as come! Pray loud friends, Praise louder, may he eat us before our minds break at his visage… May he hear our cries and be merciful on our minds, because today we will review Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones!
Sorry for that. As you can see I, Retroark, am a huge Lovecraft mythos fan. I have read every book in the direct mythos multiple times, and most of the indirect mythos books at least once.
The Mythos itself is what initially inspired me to become a writer in the first place, as I am an amateur writer in the horror fantasy space on the side. So, when I caught the chance to get my hands on Stygian, I jumped at it like a rabid beast, ready to tear into its delicious meat. After the somewhat disappointing release of “The Call of Cthulhu” game, I had an immense thirst for a truly Lovecraftian experience. I had originally thought that day would not come until I got my hands on “The Sinking City”. But I was so very wrong.
So, let’s dive in the depths of madness, shall we?
- Windows 10 Home 64-bit
- OS: 64-bit: Windows® 10 (latest updates)
- Processor: Core i7-4790k
- Memory: 32 GB RAM
- Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 (6 GB)
Stygian is a deep, meaningful game in the JRPG genre, offering many interesting things including gameplay, story, characters and I absolutely love every moment. Foremost, if you are a follower of the Lovecraft Mythos, this game is a MUST buy. And if you enjoy a deep and meaningful story, characters and gameplay, this game is a must buy. If you enjoy JRPG games and turn based strategy games, this game is a must buy. There are so many reasons to buy this game and very few reasons not to. Even most of the reasons not to are nitpicks, because I have a hard time finding anything to complain about in this game.
The issue I find often with Lovecraft inspired games, is that they either fall on one side or the other of the actual Lovecraftian Mythos. Either they are their own games with their own stories, giving references and easter eggs to the mythos, like Bloodborne and The Secret World. Or they are attempts to tell the stories we already know within the Mythos, like “The Call of Cthulhu”. But neither of these designs really give me what I have been looking for. I thirst for games and media that are brave enough to not just take the Mythos and use it, but to expand on it as I believe HP Lovecraft intended for it.
This is a bit of a controversial subject among Lovecraft fans, as some believe that the Mythos itself should be standalone. These types of people will often write off books like Robert W. Chambers “The king in Yellow” as non-canon. Personally I believe that this mindset only causes stagnation in the great Mythos that we all share, and that if we don’t want Lovecraft country to fall into obscurity, we should welcome new works based on it with open arms. That includes video games, movies and books. In addition, as a writer I believe the greatest honor we can give HP Lovecraft is by helping continue his work in the cosmic horror genre.
However, I share the concerns of the closed minded when going into new works such as Stygian. Alas, when something is so directly related to a body of works previously made, one can easily fall into pitfalls and find their work stretching the bounds of the source material. I struggle with this myself in my writing, and it’s a difficult issue that I have to deal with constantly. How far can you go before a work is no longer Lovecraft Country, but a different story entirely? How much of the original work should you use? And how much can you create yourself? It’s a strange issue that few humans ever deal with outside of the writing sector. And it’s always the issue I concern about when I see a new piece of media or game come out attached to the Mythos.
Much to my delight, Stygian does not have this problem in the slightest.
Stygian is honestly a work of art. It is less a game and more a love letter to the Mythos directly. The game is a beautiful blend of a bold new storyline, while maintaining the premise that is the original work. However, the hardest thing to get down in the Mythos is the feeling of it. Creating and maintaining that certain sense of Nihilistic dread is pivotal to creating a good Lovecraftian experience. Stygian somehow captures the fleeting sense of nihilistic dread perfectly throughout every play session.
It is like the mass effect of the cosmic horror genre. The story of Stygian places you, a poor soul among many others, in a strange and terrifying land. Something has ripped Arkham from reality and dropped it in a sea of darkness in the what people call “The Black Day”. Among your fellow survivors lay damned men, madmen and men who seek to exploit others even in these times of strive. You will follow this story down a long, spiraling path, descending into madness. What will you find there? Well, I dare not spoil it for you. Just know that step of the path is more and more treacherous.
The thing I have fallen in love with in this game is the attention to detail within it. The developers over at Cultic games really know their source material, that much is clear. And not only just the base Lovecraftian context either. Within the game, you can find many obscure books such as “The book of Law” by Aleister Crowley, each of these different books working as in game character mechanics during rest. In occult framework and text, all I can say is I am very impressed with Cultic Games and the information they have baked into the game.
The characters of Stygian are fantastic. Every person you come across is interesting in their own specific way, including the NPC’s and your prospective followers. In addition, the references for the Elder gods and enemies are very on point. I commend Cultic Games for their research and references while making this game, as it’s obvious that they really know their material. However, it is not the NPC’s or enemies that I want to talk about in this section. I want to talk about the fantastic character creator at the beginning of the game.
In games that have character creation, this aspect is important to the entire game. It’s the first thing you are met with as a player and if it disappoints, you won’t be off to a promising start. Stygian absolutely nailed their character creator. It’s honestly one of the best creators I have seen in a very long time. It’s deep, meaningful but not overbearing, and every choice you make in it will dictate how you play the game. Each point you place matters, much like in Dungeons and Dragons.
-Meet Philip Watson, Occult investigator extraordinaire!-
The different skill sets and professions you can take directly change how you can engage in each individual scenario that the game presents to you, adding a ton of new character re-playability. In fact, the character creator alone is increasingly more outstanding as I continue to play the game. Every point in your character sheet matters so it is always better to spread your skill points out than stack them on one skill.
Everything about this game is so in depth and beautifully designed, allowing for a deep and meaningful RPG experience. But the archetypes and Beliefs systems are the bread and butter of this character creator, allowing you to mix and match assets that directly affect how you will play the game, what you are weak and strong against and much, much more. Then, as you play, you can take that base character format and change it, building it up how you want it. It is a robust system with many choices that will keep you coming back to play more.
The gameplay of Stygian is as deep as it is frustrating. But frustration is not always a bad thing. Difficult games are by nature are also rewarding once progress is made. Games like Dark Souls and XCOM fall within this style of game, a style of game I truly love. Stygian has many of these traits, punishing you hard for mistakes you may never even knew you would make, such as losing sanity by talking to your undead soldier follower. However, the game is definitely not perfect.
The gameplay itself is where you can see the cracks in the structure that is Stygian. While some of these issues are bugs that will probably get fixed, some of them are just how these types of games are made these days. While playing the game, One will encounter a large amount of combat. They show this combat in the classic turn based strategy format, further adding to making the game feel like a true DnD campaign. The combat itself however, has many issues I would like to bring to light.
However, just like XCOM, that is the problem I have with it. As an avid DnD player, I can’t help but feel cheated by the game way too often. I had the same issue with XCOM, and I think I finally figured out what is causing this feeling of being cheated. Whenever it comes to RNG systems in video games, there is often a disconnect between the RNG system itself and the player, as if the Developers think we don’t like to see the mechanics of the game as they work. At least for me, this is entirely inaccurate. I absolutely want to see those dice rolls and how my stats affect them. Because if I don’t, a lot of the times when you miss or graze an enemy, you won’t know why. This results in the feeling of being cheated.
I found this particularly annoying in two spots during the combat loop. At the beginning of every round of combat is always the initial phase of turn building. This places your characters on the list (featured in the top right of the screen) in a row with all off your enemies to start combat on a turn basis. However, sometimes I felt that I was being utterly shafted by the unseen coordinator in this system. More often than not, most of your characters will be placed in the back of the row. In games like DnD, it’s called initiative. At the beginning of every combat scenario, everyone rolls their D20 and adds their dexterity modifier.
I can only assume that Stygian follows a similar path in game design. however in DnD if you roll a 1, you know that you will be last in line because of what you rolled. In Stygian, the system just places your characters out without giving you any control over it. To make matters worse, the game doesn’t even explain what skill they base this initiative on, if they base it on anything at all. It could just be completely RNG. And if it is, it feels stacked heavily against you. Where usually hiding base mechanics of a game is a good thing, I think it only serves to create annoyance and confusion in these types of games. This distancing the player from mechanics act just makes you feel blind folded and cheated. Especially when your character misses a shot at point blank range with no explanation TWICE.
Other issues I came across in combat came in the form of systemic issues. Everything you do in combat costs you AP. Attacking, moving, and looting bodies. There are a lot of system issues and bugs in this game that cause you to click what you didn’t mean to click and take actions you didn’t mean to take. I had found that I needed to be very careful when I take an action because of issues like this. This issue seems to happen particularly when characters are overlapping dead bodies, making it difficult to click one or the other.
Unfortunately, that is not the end of the bug list either. There are bugs that plague this game are few, however they are prominent. From items disappearing from your inventory to sales to a shop just being eaten up by the void, there are so many ways that the game can ruin your session. And because there is no way to control your save states, you can get locked into the bug before noticing it even happened. However, I would like to say that these bugs only bring the experience down only slightly. Truly the hallmark of a very good game is not never having bugs present. Rather, being so enthralled in the game that you push through them and continue playing. Regardless, I have full trust that Cultic Games will smooth out the small combat and inventory bugs that present themselves.
The sound and music of Stygian is… just perfect. The guns sound great, the enemy attacks and creepy music fits the mood perfectly. However, I felt the need to clarify that this game and its RPG style is not for everyone. One downfall this game has that pushes people away from it is the lack of voice over work. While this is not particularly an issue, the entire game is full of reading. From talking to people to literally needing to read an entire book to decipher and complete a puzzle, every step of the way you will read contextual information that absolutely matters to the plot lines and story of the game. Personally, I have nothing against this. In fact, I think a Lovecraftian game SHOULD have a lot of reading involved in it. However, this is no ordinary reading.
The vocabulary used in Stygian is difficult. I have seen many words just in the first couple of hours I have never seen used outside of a few of my writing works. And I have seen words I have never seen used. I have even had to look up a few words here and there, not knowing exactly what they meant. This is not reading that is ignorable either, like books in Skyrim. This game absolutely requires you to read in every session, and I felt that this alone may push some people away from the game. Perhaps if Stygian, or a modding community, put some work into voice acting the characters, the whole experience would be easier for more people to grasp and handle without getting bored.
While the games graphics are not particularly special, Every loading screen; every combat loading segment, every single scrap of paper are all drawn out so beautifully. Despite being a top-down game with fewer polygons than you could hold in a truck bed, the art and visual fidelity of the game is deeply enthralling. The entire game is a feast for the eyes. I would have given it a perfect 10, if not for a few animation glitches that happen from time to time. Absolutely gorgeous work and you should be proud of your artists. They have done your game and the mythos true honor.
While Stygian is not a particularly amazing game from an RTS or TBS stand point, that immediately goes off to the wayside. Slotting this game in with the Turn Based Strategy is incredibly shortsighted. This game is something entirely different from the other games in its genre, trying to achieve something different. And what it Achieves, many others have failed to do. Notably, The Call of Cthulhu and The Sinking City, games within the same realm of existence that had a less than stellar reception at launch. The Lovecraftian genre of games, books and movies are few and far between. Because of this, I never enjoy seeing a game within Lovecraft Country fail. However, I also understand that cosmic horror is one of the most difficult genres to write in. It requires deep solidified tone. And not just any tone either, Nihilism.
Creating a real, organic Nihilistic character alone is one of the most difficult things a writer can do. And cosmic horror asks you to create a WORLD of nihilistic characters. Moreso, it asks you to invoke a sense of nihilistic dread and cosmic terror in the reader, or in the case, the player. This is such a difficult task to ask someone to write. And Stygian replicates this sense PERFECTLY. Everything is against you. Everyone hates you, hates each other, hates life. If you try to be happy, people think you are insane. Maybe you are insane, I mean, look around you! Everything is just set up so perfectly to invoke a specific sense of nihilistic dread within the player.
Final Verdict- 9
All in all, Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones is a beautiful take on Lovecraft Country, that truly gives me hope for the cosmic horror genre of games. Stygian is a deep and passionate love letter to the father of the genre, Howard Phillips Lovecraft himself, and everyone who is a fan of the genre and the writing. Unfortunately, the game has a few issues here and there that prevent me from giving Stygian the 10/10 I wanted to give it. However, what I can do is give the game my full and absolute recommendation to anyone who loves Turn Based games, horror games, Lovecraft country, and honestly anyone else.
- Beautifully designed horror RPG
- Deep and engaging combat
- Deeper and even more engaging story
- Beautifully written characters
- Awesome character creators
- Masterfully crafted tone and inflection
- Basic bugs that cause issues in gameplay
- a few larger bugs that walk the line of game breaking
- No voice over work done for the game