You can barely make out the figure of the Dismal Man in the depths of the night, but you can still hear his cane tapping on the cold dead cobblestones as he moves down the street. Following after him, catching wisps of an old, dead world just outside the lamplight, phantasmal beings dressed in their finest begin to dance. You plunge forward, the cane still tapping in the distance as the specters lively waltz turns into a dance of death, their screams ringing out as they begin to tear each other apart. Your mind shakes with the horror and everything goes dark. You bolt upright in your bed in the dirty attic of The Old Eel House, a little less sure of your sanity thanks to the horrors you've witnessed. After huge increases in violence, mass disappearances, and supernatural phenomena, an event known as the Black Day killed off the entire planet. For reasons unknown, only the town of Arkham survived, ripped right from the dead earth and placed in another demonic plane of hellish existence. As an embattled survivor compelled so to seek out a vision of an odd man in this new, dead world, you must make your own fate while battling against the denizens of Arkham. This game is not about winning: the world is already dead and gone. All that is left is to seek out the Dismal Man and hope you don’t succumb to the dangers around you, whether it comes from humans, monstrous entities, or your own decaying mind.
Upon starting a new game you can select one of 16 premade characters: 8 male and 8 female. If you want more of a tabletop experience you can create a character instead. Every choice you make impacts your new character, even down to the age and gender. The game warns in the beginning that your gender does, in fact, play a role in some events and dialogues, which can, in turn, open up different role-playing opportunities. When selecting your age, selecting a young character allows you spend a bonus point in the Physique, Agility, or Senses stat but penalizes you with 2 less skill points due to your youthful inexperience. Choosing the old option flips the script: you gain 2 bonus skill points but get a penalty to one of your stats due to the physical deterioration old age brings. Want to start off with neither bonus nor penalty? Selecting adult is the option for you.
Now you get to select your character's archetype (or class, if you prefer) and their background. There are a lot of cool and unique options here. Here are 8 archetypes altogether, along with 4 backgrounds each. Your archetype determines how well your character will excel in certain skills. For example, the Aristocrat can max out the Occult, Science, and Speechcraft skills. An Investigator specializes in Investigation (obviously), Firearms, and Psychology. Other archetypes include Occultist, Performer, Criminal, Soldier, Explorer, and Academic. Background serves as a modifier of sorts, a give and take situation. It offers you a bonus and penalty. For instance; a Performer with the Movie Actor background gains higher sex appeal, but also has a lower addiction threshold. The Cursed Bloodline background of an Aristocratic grants you +1 to the Occult skill but increases your chance of critical failure by 3%. If you'd rather keep to the status quo, the basic background of each Archetype offers no advantages or disadvantages.
Next up is the belief system. The six choices offered will determine how your character will be able to gain sanity points by using certain types of dialogue choices and actions. This station plays all the classic hits, like Nihilistic (why bother, nothing really matters anyway.), Materialistic (gimme da loot!), Divine (Hallelujah!), Rational (I think, therefore I Am.), Humanistic (We need to stick together!) and last but not least, Rational (All hail the power of SCIENCE!). Like most Cthulhu-verse games, Sanity is very important. Receiving mental damage drains it and if it gets too low, your character will be inflicted with a debilitating mental condition. Even worse: if your Sanity drops to zero it’s game over. Low Sanity can even affect your dialogue choices by changing a normal response to the raving ramblings of a deranged madman. There are a few ways to replenish Sanity, thankfully. The final step is allocating your skill and attribute points, then you're ready to rock!
Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones should feel quite familiar to any old-school CRPG veteran. Every choice you make, the way you play, even the way you talk to people matters, even if you don’t realize it immediately. It can be a very unforgiving game if you don’t stay on your toes. Like older CRPG titles, Stygian’s story is non-linear and doesn’t hold your hand, or even point you in the right direction most of the time. There are no quest trackers, no highlighting of important NPCs, no map telling you exactly where your next objective is. This type of game design philosophy forces the player to put in some good old-fashioned legwork by exploring every nook and cranny and speak to every NPC you can to hopefully glean some important info from them. The quests often have multiple ways to see them to completion, which brings your character’s skills to the forefront of the gameplay. Placing importance on each skill encourages you to try out different character builds while still getting results, instead of shoehorning the player into one of a few useful roles. Using my detective’s excellent investigation skills, I engaged in a Sherlock-esque routine where I gleaned insight into the character of a quest NPC by observing the state of him and his outfit, correctly deducing his current circumstances. In another scenario, I used my skill in melee to successfully block an NPC that attacked me in the middle of a dialogue. I find that the truest form of role-playing games is just that: a game that allows you to play a role. Allowing you to create a character to your liking and then letting you engage with the world around you in a meaningful way using the skills you selected is the purest RPG experience. This is an area where Stygian excels.
Combat can be very challenging. I found myself getting into plenty of situations where I bit off more than I could chew. The battles are turn-based, in which each character’s reaction stat playing a role in who gets to strike first. Each character has a limited pool of AP to be used each turn to attack; cast spells, or move around on the hexagonal grid-style battlefield. Placement is important. There are obstacles around the field that you can take cover behind to protect from gunfire, and attacking from behind gives you a good damage bonus. Enemies can do the same though, and often they have the number advantage on your party. Starting off alone, you can bump into a number of odd people that may join you in your adventure. You can have two main party members and a “guest”. Sometimes a temporary character will join up with you. You can control them in battle but you cannot alter their equipment or level them up. While you can only have two main party members at a time, there are more to be found, the reason being that if a person falls in combat, it’s permanent. This ups the stakes in an already difficult game. Running is a valid option in Stygian, but it isn’t as simple as most titles. If you can survive a certain amount of rounds, the escape route opens up. If you can get a character to the highlighted hexagon, they will retreat. The good part about this is that you get to keep experience earned from whatever enemy you managed to defeat while also getting to keep any item you may have looted from corpses during the battle. Keep in mind that not every encounter can be avoided.
Just about everything in this game is like choosing the lesser of two evils. Fighting battles and gaining experience to level up is a normal part of most RPGs, but every time you take a life in Stygian you gain Angst. When you acquire enough to gain an Angst level, you must choose a negative effect from the list to permanently apply to that character. Special artifacts can be found and equipped, but they come with both a positive and negative unknown effect. To learn the positive effect you have to get them appraised from a certain shopkeeper. Learning the negative effect requires a party member with knowledge of the occult to study it while resting. Speaking of resting, it is the best way to restore health and sanity, but it can also be either expensive or dangerous. Unless you pay to rest in the attic of the Old Eel, you need to use a consumable camping kit just to rest for a night or else exhaustion sets in and penalizes your stats. When resting, each party member has 5 points in total to use for certain actions. Studying artifacts for special effects, studying to learn a new spell or recipe if you have the required items, and reading books to restore more sanity are some handy options. Since evil never sleeps, there is a chance that you will be attacked during your rest. You can spend points to assign a member to keep watch, which lowers the chance of an encounter.
What makes Stygian special to me is how it combines its narrative, audio/visual design and gameplay to reinforce the theme of hopelessness and desolation. It just hammers you from every direction. The visual style is like an old pulp comic with a dark, muted color palette. The characters that inhabit the city of Arkham are scared, desperate, and broken people when they aren’t simply cultists, gangsters, or the mentally deranged. Nobody cares about anything but their own self-interests; they all try to survive in their own way. The audio tracks are brooding, ominous things, with the keening howls of unknown entities off in the distance instilling a sense of dread as you creep through the dark. Challenging combat that makes you think twice about engaging in an enemy because the risk is high and the payoff is never truly worth it. I had such a blast making my way through Arkham, a few glitchy technical issues (like clicking to interact with something and the game doesn’t register the input) aside. If you love challenging CRPGs, are a fan of all things Lovecraft or possibly both, then Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones demands your attention. It’s R’lyeh good (HAH! Thought you were going to make it out of here without a Cthulhu pun?).
*Note: A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 8/10
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