“Isidore Schmidt is my dear friend. We have a splendid rapport, Isidore and me. He is an aging Jewish antiquarian, while I am an equally aging — albeit somewhat more gentile — patrician with a keen interest in the occult. We each have our quirks, of course. He collects keys, I collect unspeakable tomes filled with depraved incantations and eldritch rituals, you should hear our banter. Now, I say “collects keys,” when perhaps I should say “has an obsession with the things.” I swear, he offered me 1,000 cigs for one find I had (research purposes, occult matters, you don’t want to get involved). You wouldn’t believe how many times I had to refuse before the old codger finally let it be! It soured his mood considerably. But I always know what to say to get back on old Isidore’s good side. He’d never admit it, but I wager it’s the high point of his day when I come around to bother him.”
-Lewis Theobald, wounded and drugged, muttering to himself, Riverside
Isidore Schmidt, the subject of that fake quote, is an NPC in Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones. He stood out to me as a character because of a number of factors, but this one sticks with me: he will persist in offering you cigs (the new currency in what’s left of Arkham) for that key, thwarting your efforts to change the subject. Often, RPG conversations will have a baseline level of predictability to them. When you try to change the subject, it’s essentially just swapping to a different conversation tree, so you can do it freely.
Not so, here. Isidore is a character with motivations and quirks, and he’s having a conversation with you that feels more real because he doesn’t just let you pivot away when you want to go to the previous screen. Then, the game gives you the opportunity to make dry remarks, and haggle with him, and inquire about his key craze, all while carrying out the objectives of your main quest. This focus on dialogue, character, and roleplaying makes Stygian a surprising, absorbing tale of Lovecraftian horror. When that focus shifts to the combat, the interface, or the game’s structural issues, well, lose 5 Sanity.
- What is Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones?It’s a Lovecraftian RPG rendered in a gorgeously unsettling hand-drawn 2D art style. You’ll have to use your wits, influence people around you, and find ways to cope with the madness in order to survive the terrors of Stygian. Grab a .22 or a trusty wrench to defend yourself if you must, but always remember the ultimate goal: unraveling the mystery around the Dismal Man who haunts your dreams.
- Reviewed On: PC
- Developer: Cultic Games
- Publisher: 1C Entertainment
- Release Date: September 26, 2019
- Website: http://stygianthegame.com/
The Mind Unhinges in Tenebrous Places
There are some good writers over at Cultic Games. From the descriptions of the objects you examine to the dialogue — including player character dialogue options, sentences help bring the world of Stygian to life. Arkham, Massachusetts has been transported across time and space to some desolate, foreboding plane, and the scars of this traumatic event are plain to see when you speak to the inhabitants. Some drown their sorrows in cheap rotgut, others pride themselves on maintaining some facsimile of their old lives and work, and many, many others have simply cracked. Descriptions of these scenes are planted in your head, sprouting into vivid detail. Meanwhile, working alongside the writing to draw you into the atmosphere, the audiovisuals are another impressive feature of Stygian.
While the animations aren’t particularly impressive, the illustrated, maddeningly-detailed look of Stygian is tonally perfect. A statue of Abraham Lincoln is toppled and usurped by a hideous idol of Cthulhu. The Essex, once one of the premier hotels in Arkham, now stands as a monument to the authority and depravity of the Mob; who have gladly filled the power vacuum created by the sudden irrelevance of law and order. The Dismal Man, with his swirling, indistinct face and his cane fashioned out of bone, leads you silently past pairs of skeletal dancers — who soon turn on each other — to the ruined gates of Miskatonic University…
But why follow the Dismal Man? Well, it’s your main objective. But why does your character want to follow the Dismal Man? It’s a question that Stygian actually poses to you, and it reflects the clear focus placed on roleplaying. You don’t have a missing relative to track down or an entire world to save, as is often the case in RPGs, but rather you’re left to parse your character’s traits, quirks, and deep-rooted beliefs for a driving motivation to follow the main questline. This is supported by mechanics like Reading, an activity which can be done while you rest, and you’re rewarded with Sanity gain for reading books that align with your character’s ideology. It’s always nice to see RPGs actually encourage deep roleplaying with mechanics like that. But don’t let that trick you into thinking that Stygian is immune to common RPG problems, oh no.
The Mystical and the Mundane
The combat is lame. While spells, abilities, and crafted items can spice things up a bit, many turns are dry affairs where you’ll do largely the same thing over and over again. There are things to like about Stygian’s combat, of course. The emphasis on “progressive retreats,” wherein you flee from a fight but can still proceed through a dungeon, is thematic and a nice way to add some horror flavor. However, precise targeting in combat is a huge pain because of the camera angle, and there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of tactical depth at play. Granted, combat is explicitly (and mercifully) not the focus of the game. It is meant to be scarce, and you’re meant to treat gunfights as a real flesh-and-blood person might: something to be avoided until all other alternatives are exhausted.
In general, the interface is clunky and insufficient at conveying valuable information. This problem is worsened when bugs render icons useless or prevent your inventory from loading correctly. When out exploring, character pathfinding will screw up with semi-regularity or dialogue may be marked by localization issues (Cultic Games are based in Istanbul). To round out the nitpicks, I’ll note that the blurring effect brought on by Mania is obnoxious.
These problems are by no means fatal; it’s merely a shame that Stygian does such a good job of creeping you out and priming you to confront horrible eldritch monstrosities, only for those encounters to be the least engaging part of the game.
High Ground View
It’s clear that this was a passion project made by huge Lovecraft nerds. From the mechanics for Sanity (and the substances with which we cope) to the numerous references to various short stories, this game is full to bursting with staples of the Cthulhu Mythos in games. They also sidestep the whole racism thing! Mostly! Characters of color are depicted and not referred to with slurs or degrading imagery (oh, Howard), which is always nice. That said, there is a scene wherein black characters actively participate in a lynch mob, of all things. So that’s not great. I suppose it really wouldn’t be a Lovecraft story without some bad optics (Howard, Howard, Howard).
Leaving the optics conversation behind for today, Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones is an excellent roleplaying adventure set in the Cthulhu Mythos. It’s not also a vehicle for a deep, inventive combat system (that honor belongs to games like Divinity: Original Sin 2), and it could use a considerable amount of polishing. But this game compelled me to write a big fake quote for my own player character, and that’s got to say something special. Few games nail their tone, setting, and roleplaying opportunities so well that I want to start writing tragic backstories and grisly fates for my characters. Stygian, despite its flaws, certainly manages that.
Game title: Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones
Game description: The Black Day has come. Arkham, Massachusetts has undergone what some are calling a “planar shift,” obliterating the world its citizens knew. Take on the role of one of several classic Lovecraftian character archetypes--scholars, wealthy dilettantes, private investigators--and decide for yourself what to make of this new, insane place between places. Cling to your ideals, staunchly resisting the mobsters and cultists who now rule the streets of Arkham, or take the cold comfort of nihilism, embrace the debauchery, and grasp at wealth, power, and forbidden knowledge as you descend into madness.
Dialogue and Storytelling - 8/10
Combat - 6/10
Audiovisuals and Atmosphere - 8/10
Items and Exploration - 7/10
Reign of the Old Ones promises deep roleplaying, choice-driven questlines, and a terrific sense of existential dread. I could take the combat or leave it, and a few mechanics could have been fleshed out better, but I still have plenty of reasons to dive back into the half-dead shell of Arkham.
- The writing immediately draws you in–descriptions, characters, and roleplaying choices are all executed well
- The art style is mesmerizing and creepy, the music moody and appropriate
- Questlines take interesting turns, and choices feel meaningful
- Combat is lackluster
- Certain mechanics feel underdeveloped/poorly conveyed
- Bugs and localization issues