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Sympathy for the Goblin: A review of Styx: Master of Shadows

The weakness of Governor Barimen’s guard is this: they refuse to look up. To engage in this token gesture would be to permit the idea of there being a presence worthy of these foul-mouthed military men to look up to.

Yet, if the guards were to raise their chins but once, they would see a pair of yellow eyes, with the piercing diamond stare of cats, glaring patiently from under the shadows of their majestic fortresses and creaking walkways.

It is the wretched goblin, the smallest of all the species in this castle age fantasy, which takes perch on the highest mounts in order to evade being seen. And as one of these grotesque sprites in Styx: Master of Shadows, you cannot afford to be seen, for upon spying your hunched-over form, your venous olive skin, and the severe features of that puckered-up face, the humans cry out “Vermin!” and raise their swords to cut your throat. How appropriate, then, that the revelation of this Bildungsroman is that a goblin’s greatest enemy is not the domineering humans or the hulking orcs they chain to dungeon floors, or even the elves that smell your stench, but an image of the self.

Humanity assigned you the status of a monster and a rat 

The goblin’s anatomy does all the speaking. It says: this is a child murderer, the boogeyman, this is the thing that stole your coin purses. Whereas the human form, for instance, allows for better disguise of one’s despicable nature. This unfortunate circumstance is why you must hide the sight of your body from all. There are no second chances for a goblin once spotted and in range. And, if you, like me, play in Goblin Mode—the most testing difficulty option—then you don’t even have the opportunity to parry an incoming blow. You must stick to the shadows in order to climb the Tower of Akenash and break through its locked doors in order to reach the precious Heart of the World Tree.

That is why you learn to personify the words of your blind human accomplice, Ozkhan (the only person unable to judge you on your looks), as he so elegantly puts it upon introducing your newfound hideout in the sewers: “The more it smells like shit, the quieter it is.” Stealth and assassination is different here than in other videogames due to it being forced upon the character—their only way to survive underneath a society that shuns them—rather than a chosen profession. As such, the instruments of your trickery aren’t born from technology or hidden in your clothes; it’s more slimy and gross, literally coming from within. It is goblincore.

Humanity assigned you the status of a monster and a rat, and so you play up to it, puking poison into their apples and dropping from above to chomp through their skulls. You leave only a trace of the spilled bodily humor that you wiped from your maw after creating your last cadaver, which is now stowed away in a trunk. Most repugnant of your murderous instruments are the clones of yourself that you spew up as bulbous bile; all prowling flesh and foetal glop. They act as a better distraction than whistling from behind a corner as they can lead patrols into a diversionary direction. Later, you can outfit your clones to behave like spiders, throwing themselves on to guards to bind them, or pouncing from wardrobes to drag them into a state of arrest. You make sure goblins are only seen when you want them to be, when it’s a disposable clone, as otherwise it’s best to manufacture accidents by way of a fallen chandelier, or to turn temporarily invisible to bypass the predatory species.

So it is that concealment overshadows all your movements and navigational decisions when infiltrating the lavish chateaus and stony keeps. You acquire an entire language of ways to interact with architecture for the purpose of evasion. You learn to extinguish every torch, to use carpets to soften the sound of your landing, and to always have an escape route if it all goes wrong (these precautionary actions are not due to following an instruction but are the educated children of your mistakes). Look to the skies and you’ll see rafters and rooftops, where machicolation and murder holes provide unexpected entryway from below and above. There are wells in the ground to dive into, barrels to hide inside, and crawlspaces lit by blue mushrooms as if to invite you in. Your existence relies on mapping out the multitudinous subspaces and, if you have to, moving swiftly across the main entryways and staircases.

They talk about you as if an omnipresent beast 

This is why Styx‘s greatest strength is in always providing another option when a passageway appears to be impenetrable. Perhaps it is disguised and needs to be found with Amber Vision—which lights up the room to your goblin eyes—maybe you need to send a clone in to break up a crowd, but, astoundingly, there is always a network of crawling pathways to find and exploit. This is also why the multi-tiered dungeons and grand halls hold appeal even after several revisits: to discover previously unseen routes and more disgusting ways to divert the hundreds of pairs of eyes populating each of the game’s seven chapters.

In fact, it becomes even better once you get to know the possibilities of each space as well as you do the knots bored into your goblin knee. It is then that you can spend less of your time crouched tense in dark corners hoping the sound of clinking armor doesn’t come your way, and more of it connecting murders like dots, striking aggression out of fear into the hearts of men as you slink away unspotted.

This may be why, to the guards occupying each architectural wonder, you seem to be nowhere and everywhere all at once. They talk about you as if an omnipresent beast, often repeating the sentiment of the terrified Hudson in Aliens when saying, “They’re coming outta the goddamn walls!” And yeah, you are coming out of the walls—you’re inside them, around them, dropping off from them and on to a pair of unsuspecting shoulders below. You become a creature of the dark.

By the end, every man in Barimen’s army has a story about spotting a shadow the shape of a goblin in the corner of their eye. Your work creates the myths about horrifying goblins that are passed down through the generations. Your propensity for thievery and muffled murder becomes the unknown terror that is instilled in human children across the world.