Here at Coopdojo, we’re invested in multiple playthroughs simultaneously. We’re primarily working on Zelda and Mass Effect right now with some other point-and-click adventures as well, This last week, though, we’ve dropped everything to play rounds of Styx: Shard of Darkness. The cooperative stealth title is a lot of fun. Your hero, Styx, is a goblin thief in a world filled with armed guards. He is pretty exceptional at moving through the shadows which is fortunate as most everything can kill him. Styx is the kind of game that is enormously improved by cooperative gameplay. As a single-player game, it works as a fun but strangely dated fantasy game. As a cooperative adventure, it becomes a thrilling fantasy adventure. If you can deal with some dated graphics and gameplay, two-player Styx can be a heck of a lot of fun. In terms of providing satisfying cooperative gameplay, here are the three things Styx gets right.
You Never Feel Overpowered
One of the reasons cooperative play didn’t work well in games like Splinter Cell was the fact that the cooperative team was much too powerful for most missions. A pair of armed ninjas could cut through most of the missions without difficulty. With precise targeting and plentiful shadows, we blasted through most levels without even bothering to hide bodies. Some of the later games stepped up the difficulty, but we still managed to cut through most of them without trouble. Styx is a bit better about keeping you vulnerable. While Styx can kill guards he ambushes, he has no capacity to fight head on. In short, if you get discovered, you’re dead. Part of this reflects the decision to remove Styx’s ability to parry in the cooperative adventure, a decision that we found initially aggravating but actually is very smart. If we could go toe-to-toe with guards, we’d never need to hide. Without that the ability to parry (or survive more than a hit or two), we’re forced to play Styx as a sneaky assassin. Every kill can mean your own death if a guard turns too quickly or suddenly looks behind himself. It must have been a gutsy decision to take out the ability to parry from the cooperative gameplay, but – in this case – less was definitely more.
Cooperative Kills Work Well
In Styx, you can split up and explore the level individually, but it’s a lot more fun to kill badguys together. To be clear, there aren’t a lot of specific cooperative kills you can do in Styx. Instead, we wind up working together quite a bit to tackle two or more guards. Once one of us killed the guard coming to investigate the missing guard whose body we were hiding. Other times an assassination has gone awry and leading one of us (usually me) dashing away with a guard in close pursuit. The other player can then either choose to chase down the pursuing guard or play it safe (one of us has to stay alive to regenerate the other). Those moments are fun and exhilarating, and we wouldn’t have those if there were pre-programmed cooperative kills. Part of it has to do with the vulnerability, but a larger part has to do with the design of the game, the structure of the levels, and Styx’s own limited abilities. In Styx, you have to create it on the fly, and it all works to make the successful cooperative kill incredibly satisfying.
No Saving is Irritating, but Raises the Stakes
Unlike the single player mode, cooperative play doesn’t let you save as you complete parts of the mission. This means you and a buddy have to complete the entire hour to two hour mission in one go without both of you dying at the same time. It’s irritating at first, but we did adapt to it and just started to alert one another whenever we were doing anything especially dangerous. As long as you both don’t die, you can complete the mission. But this means you have some tough questions to consider. Should you leave a safe spot to potentially rescue your partner if it means you could both be killed? How closely should you stick together in each level? Communication and observation become key; an overlooked guard or a misguided assassination attempt can quickly end an entire mission. This was a tough learning curve for us, but we’re kinda badass now and we find ourselves appreciating the game for refusing to hold our hands. In fact, Styx is far more likely to tear you a new one than to offer any comforting words. Hopefully more games will discover that challenging cooperative gameplay is a great motivator and training gamers to work as a team makes for compelling gameplay. Even when you have to endure insults from Styx himself.