Regulars here will not be shocked to find out that I love the nightmare-fueled dreams of the Mythos. Also known as the Cthulhu Mythos, this shared body of work has been altered, borrowed from, and twisted lovingly by authors for some time. While Lovecraft was a racist jackass, his work has left an indelible mark (some may even say stain?) on the world of science fiction and horror. But the creeping doom that is typically reserved for when my wife takes a gander at my videogame budget is a hard emotion to capture in said videogames.
Made by an indie studio out of Turkey by the name of Cultic Games, Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones has a lot going for it. It promises to be a CRPG with high replayability, meaningful choices and one heck of a creepy vibe. Stygian draws upon lots of the classical work from the Mythos but also tries to set itself apart and do its own thing.
The game is set in the twenties in the classic Mythos city of Arkham. Something happened on the notorious Black Day, and the entire burg was picked up and dropped in a nightmare world. So already this is a different type of tale, joining the short story “A Study in Emerald” by Neil Gaiman with a setting where the Old Ones have already been victorious.
Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones was released on September 26 on Steam for 33.99 Canuck Bucks.
At the Threshold
Once again, I find my old frame hurtling through time and space to another video game realm. When I slid into the dimensionally displaced city of Arkham, I adopted the clever pseudonym Mord Aithinsworth. I woke up in some dingy attic over the top a noisy bar, from some horrible dream about a man with questionable fashion taste.
I had some expectations going in. I was adopting the persona of a conman, a charlatan, a nogoodnik – in other words, a not-very-nice person at all. I was expecting in this world of madness to sneak, creep, and generally lie my way through things. And I was mostly correct. There was a problem with my expectations, though one fixed with a growing understanding of the genre I found myself in.
Stygian isn’t just a horror game, nor is it just a noir mythos game. I mean, it is those, but it also smacks of pulpy adventure stories. There is a loving camp to everything (that thankfully does not break the grim tone of the game.) The story makes mention of masked vigilantes, but all the heroes are dead now. There are evil criminals – ones that would be at home in a Dick Tracy comic, though maybe with a darker source of power and debauchery? And combat with the eldritch horrors was a more viable option than I was expecting going in… Though still not the best of ideas.
The graphics of the game are unnerving in all the right ways. The splash art, backgrounds, and characters are all lovingly designed. The creatures and monsters manage to worm their way into a pit in my stomach and gestate there. Ultimately, the games’ overall aesthetic reminds me of the classic EC Comics like Tales from the Crypt or Crime Suspense Stories. Not sure if it was on purpose, but boy howdy, I appreciate it.
Mord Aithinsworth was having a tough time. He managed to con a few of the local stores into giving him a discount, but they wanted cigarettes instead of money. (Well, it sure beats bottle caps; those things clank too much.) He’d managed to make some friends of questionable heritage. He helped several people, but also made a few so angry they would never speak to us again. Thankfully, Mord’s sneaky nature allowed for ample use of all those lockpicks that he’d kept buying from the local junk dealer.
Mord only felt a bit of trepidation for his ways when he saw an accomplice in a recent business transaction torn apart by hooded cultist and screeching dog-creatures. It was then he decided he needed to get out of Arkham, once and for all.
Every choice, every deal, every dialogue I clicked made me worry. As Mord’s mind began to deteriorate (it’s only a matter of time in this game), I’d go to click on a talky option only to have it struck out and replaced by some insane babble. There’s a sense of dread with almost everything you do in this game, and it builds as time goes on. That slow-boil, creeping dread is key to the best Mythos stories. It’s a beautiful moment when you realize how tense and nervous you are, and you’re not completely sure when it started.
And note, when the game suggests you not get on the wrong side of the Mob or the Cult, it means it. My life became remarkably more challenging when I wronged the wrong wrongdoers.
A Curious Collection
In the construction of an electric flesh puppet that my consciousness would ride in, that is to say, Mord Aithinsworth, I found myself in a unique place. That place being character creation. Age mattered and impacted things to a fair degree. Naturally, I took Old. That choice punished one of our physical statistics but gave me more skills. And who doesn’t love old people? Everyone loves old people! Why when someone asks you who could help you? You always and correctly answer “The Old Ones.”
There were eight classes to choose from, and each class had four archetypes. These choices allowed for a wide variety of character builds, customization, and flavour. This design choice corresponds with the desire of Cultic to have a high replayability factor for their game.
You boost your starting stats, and you assign skills; all very typical CRPG stuff. But then came something I wasn’t expecting: The belief system. These choices are the closest the game comes to assigning you an alignment or moral code. The belief you choose is the world view/philosophy that you cling to, to keep your sanity. It creates opportunities in the game to engage in your belief, and regain precious sanity (well, most of them regain sanity… Not all.) Mord Aithinsworth was a materialist. If there was profit, he sought it. Through these greedy actions, he found himself taking some foolish risks and closing off relationships with offended citizens of Arkham. Ah well, it kept him sane longer, until mania gripped him.
Mania was the first insanity I managed to acquire. In the game, you struggle with addiction, mental stress, curses, hunger, exhaustion and possibly more. It isn’t a chore, but it is enough of a concern to keep things interesting. My prideful character eventually resorted to scavenging the mercifully refilling piles of trash in the streets. He just needed a few more cigs to buy a few cans of beans to get through the next few days.
I won’t spoil the fun times of the effects of many of the insanities I came across. But I will tell you that your manic character suddenly having a great desire to shoot a random enemy in combat, rather than flee? Not a good scene. No friend, not good at all.
There is a crafting system, but to be honest, I never really got into it. Mord Aithinsworth was fortunate enough to be swimming in (mostly ill-gotten) cigs. I found it to be better to buy whatever I needed. That said, I would wander to the crafting bench once and a while and see if there was anything I could make. It was a simple system, and you could likely make a solid playthrough using it extensively. Researching recipes was easy. You could either find them or delve into studies when you rested.
Resting was one of my favourite systems in the game, for two reasons. One, it added a “what are your characters doing while they camp for the night” option. Two, because I’m old and I like napping. While resting, you could have your party read, study, treat wounds or mental illness. You had several rest action points that you could spend, and each action took up so many. You often wound up doing more than one thing in resting, and more options were present with different skills opened.
So, I’ve sung some praises, now for a bit of the doom and gloom. Two parts of the game were troublesome to me. One was a minor disappointment, but nothing that ruined the experience for me. The other was a bit more serious. The first was combat. The initial thing that leapt out of my mind when I saw that Stygian had tactical combat was “oh sweet baby Hastur, yes!” but then I was reminded quickly that the phrase ‘tactical combat’ was a very broad descriptor.
The combat is tactical. In the same way that Battle Brothers or the classic Heroes of Might and Magic games have tactical combat. Initiative driven, turn-based combat on a grid map. Some minor obstacles, facing matters, that sort of stuff. The types of games I think of when I consider tactical are ones like Divinity: Original Sin 2, X-Com, or any squad-based tactical game. Combat is hard to avoid in the game, and while present, it isn’t the driving force. And honestly, it shouldn’t be. The story of Stygian is that of the unspeakable horrors from beyond the corners of sanity. So, combat is perfectly adequate. Don’t expect anything overly complicated, and plan to hit the same beats in many fights.
Now, being honest, I may have soaked my head in the tremendous, bottomless, never-ending lake called hyperbole when I mentioned the ‘seriousness’ of my next issue. It’s just my only major complaint about the game…
The interface. You know, the thing that allows you to interact with the game world. Most of the time, it works fine. I click a place, and my character shuffles over. I want Mord Aithinsworth to search that crate? I click it, and he does the thing. The problem lies in when it doesn’t work.
It isn’t anything game-breaking. It’s just fidgety. You need to have your little toon back away from the object and approach it from a different angle. Sometimes you need to do this more than once. No, it isn’t game-breaking, because eventually, it works. But, in a game about atmosphere and building tension – breaking the mood is almost as bad as breaking the game. A few times while playing, I stopped being Mord Aithinsworth, and I was then pulled back into the safe confines of my office. I would grumble as I tried to work out which way to approach a crate I wanted to loot. The tension deflates and has to start winding up again.
I know the folks at Cultic games are working out many of the bugs, and I hope the interface is going to be among them. Stygian is the first outing for the company, and it’s very ambitious.
Heed the Call
Sure, I had some complaints, but they were minor, and honestly the one about combat was more whinging than anything else. Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones didn’t meet one or two of my expectations, but it shot past others. Character creation, story, and ambiance are all nailed with deadly accuracy. I’ve played my share of Mythos inspired games over the past few years, and this one managed to nail the themes without playing it safe.
Tone-wise, it’s an easy concept to screw up. A pulp noir game in this setting, in this genre, could have been good but also missed the point of the slow burn madness and horror that is at the heart of the Mythos stories. But Stygian manages to bring that narrative home where it counts. As a fan of the Mythos, CRPGs, and pulp noir, I can give this a hearty recommendation.
8/10 – Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones is easily my favourite Mythos themed game in a long time and dances dangerously close with perfection. A few bug fixes may turn an eight into a nine.
Review by Joshua Smith – Old Man Mordaith
Edited by Jesse Roberts