Cosmic horror? Check. Helplessness and hopelessness? Check. Fragility of the human psyche tested? Check. Brace yourselves, ladies and gentlemen – shit’s about to get Lovecraftian. Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones is an intriguing little title from Turkish developers Cultic Games, which strives to transpose the famous work and style of H.P. Lovecraft into the body of an RPG. On many levels the game is a success, but some dicey combat and poorly explained mechanics sully what is otherwise an impeccable experience.
Greetings peasants how goes th–… by the Pope!
Before you set foot in Stygian’s world, you are tasked with creating a new character, and the available options wear their tabletop RPG inspiration on their sleeves. Gender (there are only two), social background, past employment and belief system all have parts both big and small to play in how your game unfolds. It’s all fairly daunting to begin with, and on your first playthrough it’s unlikely you’ll know exactly how your choices gel with your stats and skills. I decided to resist my usual tendency to create a battlemage type character (which in Stygian would be tied to the skills of Occult and Firearms or Melee), and go for the more noble academic researcher. I figured that a game so inspired by Lovecraft was just as likely to unleash horrors upon the mind as it was on the physical body, and what better way to combat that than with a rational-souled woman with vested interest in Psychology, Science and Medicine? Thus, Iluva Debussy was born. This fledgling character build eventually formed a strong playthrough, but in essence it doesn’t matter what character you start with. The game encourages an incredibly diverse approach depending on the character you build, and asks only that once you’ve chosen you commit yourself fully to the roleplay.
Stygian places you in the damned town of Arkham, which following a mysterious event called the Black Day has found itself inexplicably separated from reality. Caught in a hellish limbo between the known physical world and a terrifying supernatural plane, Arkham’s citizens continue their dire existence amongst the rubble of a once prosperous town. But being caught between worlds is an opportunity for some, and powerful groups of religious zealots and mobsters have ceased power in in the now lawless Arkham. Your job is to navigate the treacherous wastes of Arkham and the hopeless citizens that have embraced their most base natures in order to find a way out of this nightmare.
Stygian’s story is one of its main strengths, and the writing is consistently thoughtful and deliberate. The world and its inhabitants are complex and compelling, and how they’ve chosen to deal with being stuck in this hostile world between worlds is an interesting study of humanity. Many are cruel and opportunistic, some wallow in the depths of hopelessness and loss, others succumb fully to the incomprehensible madness of it all. Uncovering the mysterious forces behind Arkham’s schism from the known world, and catching glimpses of the powerful beings to whom we are but pathetic and meaningless bags of weak flesh controlled by feeble minds remains compelling throughout. But while I am ready to heap praise of Stygian’s world and story, I would be remiss in not addressing the giant tentacled Cthulhu in the room. The end of your harrowing journey is as abrupt as it is supremely unsatisfying, and much like the city of Arkham the main story arc is left in a state of limbo when the credits roll. The developers have mentioned that they had to end up focusing on a shorter, more polished tale as opposed to an undercooked and lengthy one, but this does not excuse the game’s story from feeling incomplete.
Always time for a quick cup o’ joe
Suddenly I feel underdressed
In terms of gameplay, Stygian is a mixture of point-and-click adventure with RPG elements and turn-based combat. The former is extremely well done, the latter is…less so. Most of your time is spent strolling about Arkham talking to people, scrounging for supplies and bartering. Main quests and sidequests alike require that you converse with multiple citizens to acquire different items and information, and the skills you chose for your character play a large part in how those conversations play out. For instance, having skill points in Medicine allowed me to offer medical treatment to people who would otherwise be quite hostile to me. Additionally, my Science skill allowed me to converse with other rationally-minded people on their level, and they in turn would share information with me that they otherwise mightn’t. It may sound minor, but entire sections of the game play out differently depending on the role you’ve chosen to play. Situations that may have turned violent were not only diffused but turned to my advantage in many instances, and it is always a good idea to check your options in a given quest before charging in head first. In addition to this, everything time you use a skill specifically you gain experience, which feeds into your overall level and allows you to further invest in these skills (or others if you so choose).
Stygian’s story is one of its main strengths, and the writing is consistently thoughtful and deliberate. The world and its inhabitants are complex and compelling, and how they’ve chosen to deal with being stuck in this hostile world between worlds is an interesting study of humanity
Despite Arkham being a dreary place, the spirit of capitalism remains strong, and a lot of the early game is spent trying to build up a decent stack of currency called cigs (which is short for cigarettes for those playing at home). Having things to barter is essential if you want to kit yourself and your team out with supplies in order to survive, and in the beginning it feels like every cig was important. By the end you’ll have so many darts you won’t be able to spend them all and will have everything your heart desires, and this is probably the only aspect of Stygian I felt I was actually ‘winning’ at.
No matter how smooth you are at talking your way out of things, you will eventually end up in combat, and it’s here that the game’s soft and weak underbelly is exposed. Combat is a slow and clunky affair, and for non-combative character builds (such as mine), it really isn’t enjoyable. Luckily you can have two permanent companions which can compensate for your lack of combat prowess, but so many aspects of Stygian’s donnybrooks are so poorly explained it’s comical. For instance, the Outsider is a companion who can cast spells, but you are never really told this or how to equip or cast them, and are likely to only stumble upon it by happenstance. Spells can also be upgraded using special items, but again, the fact that this is even possible is never overtly discussed, and the method for doing so quite well hidden. Furthermore, the game gives you no indication of whether or not an attack is likely to land, and even when you do land a hit the enemy’s total HP is not visible, just some bizarre strike system where once there are four strikes above their head they die. It’s clear there is a bunch of dice rolling going on in the background based on your characters’ stats, but exactly how it all affects things is kept a confounding mystery.
In the spirit of remaining Lovecraftian these fights can also be extremely tough, as you’re not really supposed to best your enemies most of the time, but rather survive them. I appreciated this aspect of the combat as it felt like most of the time I wasn’t rolling the opposition but rather managing my own losses and resources. Battles felt like they could turn nasty at any point, and staying well stocked with healing supplies and buffs was the only way to emerge with body and mind intact.
Outside of combat there are plenty of other mechanics that are poorly explained. Your party needs sleep and food for instance, but again you’re never really introduced to this until you become hungry or fatigued. Sleep is also tied into a research mechanic which is important for learning new spells or technologies for (Love)crafting. You eventually figure it all out, but there seems very little reason to purposefully obfuscate what are important mechanics at the core of surviving Stygian.
Not as fun as it looks
Full-body tats – this guy is either dabbling in the dark arts or is an AFL player
It’s clear there is a bunch of dice rolling going on in the background based on your characters’ stats, but exactly how it all affects things is kept a confounding mystery
As an aside, the save system also needs some major addressing. The game has a running log of events that will often tell you that the game has autosaved, but more often than not this is simply not the case. At one point I had just beaten a tough late-stage boss, only to have the game glitch out and everything become non-interactable. This forced a reboot of an autosave which placed me before the boss and required me to go through the whole ordeal again. In the last area of the game it was impossible to restart combat as it would cause all buttons to become inactive. The only sure-fire method of ensuring no progress loss is to use the save and quit to menu option, as there is inexplicably no manual quicksave outside of this. Basically, be prepared to return to the menu and reboot your game multiple times.
The game’s 2D hand-drawn art style is fairly well done throughout, and there are plenty of minor details that breathe life into Stygian’s tortured world. Animations (particularly in combat) do feel a little stiff though, and there’s a certain lack of viscerality in how the game moves. Sound design is minimalist, but there were some sections where I wish it was more minimalist, as the incessant moanings and wailings made me want to gouge out my ear canals.
Despite some easy criticisms, Stygian is possibly one of the most unique RPGs I have experienced. From interesting non-traditional character builds to how the world and story make you feel like you are not dominating it but merely surviving it, the sense of dread and trepidation as I made my way through Stygian’s dark and twisted tale was palpable. It’s a pity that the developers didn’t give a few more primers on the basic mechanics or manage to integrate the combat in a way that complements the other aspects of gameplay, but for any fan of Lovecraftian fiction I can say that it’s a journey worth taking. Hopefully we get a sequel that will give the main story arc the satisfying conclusion it deserves, but if you’re in the mood for getting helpless and hopeless at the mercy of ancient malevolent beings, Stygian has you covered.
Reviewed on PC| Review code supplied by publisher