Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones is an old school CRPG which just might be the most accurate recreation of Lovecraftian mythology in any video game.
Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones is an old school CRPG set in the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft which, while rough around the edges, manages to effectively translate the aspects of Lovecraft's horror writings in a way few games have properly accomplished. One of the most influential writers of his time, Lovecraft's stories are remembered as the progenitors of "cosmic horror," the idea humans are neither alone nor significant in the grand scheme of the universe. His stories are tinged with concepts of something dangerous lurking just below the surface, and many of them end with the narrator going mad or succumbing to the will of these all-powerful Old Gods. Lovecraft was also, even when compared to other writers of his time, exceptionally racist, and many of his works, such as the famous The Shadow over Innsmouth, are not-so-subtle allegories to the things he personally deemed horrific, like race mixing.
What's immediately surprising about playing Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones is that the game does not shy away from any of those traits. In Stygian, the old ones have arrived. They're here already, having taken over the oft-referenced town of Arkham at some unspecified point before the game begins, and their presence has driven many of the less willful residents mad, including a man filled with some sort of unspecified guilt who dances around the city streets in blackface. All aspects of Lovecraft's fiction are preserved here just as they appeared in the text, including the offensive viewpoints and strange fears of oceanic life.
Much like the stories which inspired it, if the player can look past those facets of the game then they may find themselves in a deeply engrossing experience. While the majority of Lovecraft's horror detail the discovery and revelation of different forms of eldritch truth, in Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones, as the title implies, the Old Gods are indeed reigning. Rather than trying to stop the invasion of the other-worldly beings, such as other adapted Lovecraft games like Bloodborne and The Consuming Shadow, in Stygian the player is simply tasked with surviving for as long as he or she can in a post-invaded world. The game contains beautifully grotesque hand-drawn backgrounds which change and evolve as the madness grows, and fantastic sound design featuring droning tones, rattling chains, and screaming babies goes a long way towards getting the player in a horror mindset.
The minute-to-minute gameplay of Stygian is comparable to the first two Fallout games, with players exploring a dilapidated town filled with stores, boarded-up buildings, and a wide array of non-playable characters ranging from mobsters to crazed, pants-less madmen. Multiple characters and companions are taken straight from Lovecraft's stories, including the oppressed Outsider and the wife of author surrogate Randolph Carter, and a player can accumulate up to two companions and an additional bodyguard to accompany them. Companions share item and inventory space but bodyguards do not, and the latter will abandon the player if they are not paid each day.
Bodyguards, bartenders, and nearly everyone else in Stygian are paid for their services with cigs, this game's version of Fallout's unique post-war currency but with cigarettes instead of bottlecaps. Players can earn cigs by selling items, completing certain tasks, or by finding them in containers around the environment and in the pockets of fallen enemies. Cigs are important because without them a player is not able to buy things needed for surviving the ethereal world such as crafting ingredients, books, cocaine, and the always-necessary bullets.
Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones opts for a turn-based combat system like Final Fantasy VII and Fallout which takes place on a hexagonal grid and is frustratingly slow, especially during fights with large numbers of participants on screen. Enemies in Stygian, be they monsters from the abyss or just crazed and angered humans, do a significant amount of damage and seem to have more action points available to them than the player does, specifically in the early hours of the game before adequate time has been given to level up. These enemies are often grouped into large clusters, with player parties regularly encountering four, five, or six monsters at once, turning each combat session into a fifteen minute long game of frustrating, bloody chess.
In keeping with the game's thematic influences, the town of Arkham starts as an already dilapidated shell of its former self before sinking deeper and deeper into madness and squalor as the game progresses. Players eventually gain the ability to venture out from town and explore various combat and plot locations, with map travel once again taking inspiration from the original Fallout and Wasteland games by allowing random encounters to happen en route to planned destinations. Sadly, however, the game lacks any sort of free travel function, instead only letting players head towards a location once they have been informed of it existing and not before.
This issue, and many others which arise while playing Stygian, is hard to nail down as a specific complaint because it's possible that it was an intentional choice by the developers. Some problems, like unsatisfactory combat, poorly-implemented pathfinding, and grammatical errors in dialog are surely not chosen decisions on the part of the game's designers, but others may be. Yes, it's a lot of enemies to fight at once, but doesn't it add to the overwhelming feeling of oppression Lovecraft wanted the reader to feel? Are the occasional weird, janky animations evidence of a lack of polish, or are they sanity effects? Maybe your character doesn't remember how they got to Arkham or how to leave, so instead of being ill-designed the map could simply be intentionally and thematically useless. In games like Eternal Darkness, it was easy to tell the difference. In Stygian, it isn't.
What stands out the most about Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones is its adherence to both the source material and the role-playing genre in general. More than almost any other game in recent memory, Stygian rewards players for acting as if they were the person they have chosen. This begins at the character creation screen, which requires players to select not only skills and traits but backgrounds and religious beliefs, and once they assign a name and portrait they are encouraged to role-play as strictly as possible to their character. Choosing dialog options which correspond to a character's belief system, for example, will help the player regain sanity, the mentality being that they are acting and thinking as they normally would. Sanity and XP bonuses that reward in-character actions such as these go a long way towards subtly guiding a player to enjoy the game in the manner which it was intended.
Character and background choices are integrally tied to how a player will experience Stygian, especially considering the bonuses certain archetypes start with. Players who want to role play as a Big Game Hunter can expect to be accompanied by a large hunting dog throughout the duration of their journey, while an Aristocratic character might find his or herself dragging around a butler. Not every build has such companions, though, so choose carefully.
Stygian is the classic Kickstarter achievement story, where a small team was able to realize and execute their dream thanks to a shared want of the community to see that dream fulfilled. Although multiple issues persist throughout the title, such as the aforementioned tedious combat and sub-par pathfinding, the quality of the game's writing (when all the words are spelled correctly) and interwoven Lovecraft stories are enough to keep any fan of CRPGs interested throughout two or three separate playthroughs. While not recommended for casual gamers, anyone who can look past some technical imperfections and appreciate well-executed tabletop-style role playing mixed with cosmic horror will get at least a dozen enjoyable hours out of Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones.
Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones is available for PC, Linux, and Mac. Screen Rant was provided a PC code for review.