Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones takes you exactly where it promises in the title: A VERY dark land literally torn apart from New England it once was part of, thrown into a plane of madness and despair, as it is now ruled by the Old Ones. I assure you, I am not being particularly dramatic.
You are not trying to save the world: “That battle is already lost”
The game is a turn-based tactical RPG with very strong survival and horror adventure elements. In fact, you spend most of your time wandering Arkham solving mysteries, not knowing what to do next, unless you find a clue that points you in the right direction, that is, inescapably, more madness and despair. You are not trying to save the world: “That battle is already lost”, to quote the game’s Steam page directly. You are merely trying to find your way out of this plane, save your own self, which in itself is a very sad thing.
The story is set in a time like 1920s-1930s and stands as a twisted tribute to film noirs. Maybe more so, because I played as the Investigator Ruth Atherton. You start the game choosing or customizing a character. The choices are satisfyingly vast. There are 8 classes and 4 archetypes. You can be a soldier or a criminal, an occultist or a materialistic investigator like my own. You can be young or old, bearing in mind that age is not just a matter of aesthetics here. Older characters have advantages in skills but disadvantages in health. There is also the belief system that determines how you deal with things you see in Arkham and in effect helps you maintain your sanity. My investigator was materialistic for example, and the game rewarded me for role-playing a materialist and self-indulgent character with sanity points. Nevertheless, I was frequently tempted to give the humanistic replies which opened new possibilities.
In fact, there is not much in Stygian that comes purely with wins. There is almost always a BUT. Every skill, every spell, every weird artifact you find, almost every conversation you pursue and even insanity itself, brings you PROs and CONs. You find a nice shiny compass. After you decipher it (yourself or by the help of Isidore Schmidt at the Antique Shop), you find that it increases your speed on the World Map. BUT it also decreases sanity points gained during resting. So you have to weigh your situation carefully.
Insanity is inevitable, but you learn to embrace it.
Insanity is an important component of the game, like in most Lovecraftian games on PC or tabletop. As you progress through the story and battles, you gain not only experience points but also ANGST points (Jung, anyone?). You struggle with all sorts of difficulties: darkness, exhaustion, hunger, stress, addiction, howling of lunatics… You name it, the game has it. Insanity is inevitable, my character became schizophrenic before too long and I started seeing Arkham behind a colorful haze, but I learned to embrace it. As I said, there is always another side of the coin. So insanity comes with its own unique advantages too.
You find some relief in alcohol, narcotics, company of other people, acting in line with your belief, solving mysteries and through resting of course. Which brings us to another interesting side of the game. Resting in Stygian is not just about healing your wounds. It is also an opportunity to find time to develop your character. You can read a book, study spells, do scientific research, or decipher artifacts in your free time. You can craft medicine and objects on a crafting table if you have the right formulas.
The character screen and inventory are very well made. I read some complaints at Steam forums about the UI but I found it perfectly working. One thing I particularly liked was the way they made interactable objects seen more easily if you click Alt-Tab. Other games have it too but since the game is very dark, the interactable objects come out really well, even though the shining is dim at best.
the game encourages you to role-play the character you chose at the beginning.
There is great focus on dialogue. How you pursue a dialogue depends on your character traits as well as your choices as a player. But like I said, the game encourages you to role-play the character you chose at the beginning. At one time, I sold an important item to a shop keeper (don’t judge me, after bit of persuasion, he paid a LOT, and I got a bit carried away by the “materialist” side of my character than “investigator”) I left the shop thinking what a really good deal I got. And bam! The screen says the item I sold just now was a quest item, with it gone, I lost the chance to solve the mystery, and I would spend the rest of my days wandering the streets in Arkham. Ah, the chill I got all the way down my spine was priceless. Thankfully, the game auto-saved when I entered the shop.
Mystery solving is great fun if you can call catching chills and more disturbing feelings fun! Each progress in the story adds up slowly to more and more tragic events. I was very surprised to read some negative reviews on the Steam page about the game being slow. I think this is the very strength of the game. You being hopeless. Not knowing what to do. Actually having to read the bits and pieces of text you find here and there. It’s not boogeyman jumping to the screen type of horror. It is slowly gripping you by its claws type of horror. Very loyal to the original work of Lovecraft.
The art is amazing. The lighting, music, voices all play their part towards building a uniquely terrifying atmosphere.
Combat is hard. It’s actually something you should avoid altogether at the beginning before you manage to gather a plausible party. Even then, it sometimes feels impossible. Fortunately, though, there is something called “Progressive Escape” so you can abandon fighting after you wear down the enemy and still get to keep the loot from the fight. I must say that the slow build that works so well with the story pacing doesn’t work so well at combat. It takes a bit too long to shoot enemies down, even with firearms. OK, I read the tip that says “Stygian isn’t about winning, it’s about enduring.” but it is still frustrating to miss shooting an enemy standing right next to you. Anyway, as I explained above, this game is not made of combat. It’s just something you have to do, sometimes, if you fail to avoid it.
Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones is absolutely not for a casual gaming session! You need to dedicate time and effort to it. Preferably in a silent room. At night. Alone. So much luxury for a mother-of-two-little-kids like myself! Oh, I wish it was out 10 years ago! I left a fraction of my mindset on that Occultist character! And had to leave so many chests unopened since I didn’t have Subterfuge Skill. Oh well.