Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones by Cultic Games
So many games based on H.P. Lovecraft do little more than recreating the basic premise of The Call of Cthulhu (both the novella and the various tabletop and video games that took its name). The player discovers horrible goings-on involving cults and/or scientists messing with strange, otherworldly forces and horrific alien gods, and must struggle against sanity to stave off catastrophe.
Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones dispenses with all that. The bad guys won. The city of Arkham – based on Salem, MA and featured in so many of Lovecraft’s stories – has been cut off from the rest of the world, whisked off to some other dimension of permanent twilight.
The crops have died, half the population has gone mad, and the Cthulhu cult marches openly in the streets.
Terrifying Vistas of Reality (and of Our Frightful Position Therein)
It’s an ingenious way to put a brand new spin on tropes that have become overly familiar. You’ve got your prohibition-era gangsters, your antique shops full of cursed idols, your mad artists and your even madder occultists, but they’re all struggling to adjust to a new set of horrors that have risen to the surface instead of merely bubbling just underneath it.
With a dwindling food supply, the dollar has lost all value and been supplanted by an ad hoc prison-style economy based on cigarettes. The local pharmacist has traded medicine for opiates, one of the few balms left to ordinary people beset by extraordinary horrors. And instead of government and civil services, the Mob has joined forces with the hooded Cthulhu-worshipers.
Into this apocalyptic (but old-time) vision of other-dimensional end times strides our heroic player character, and there are mysteries aplenty to solve. Obviously, “What happened here?” is a pressing question, but there’s also the nightmarish visions of “The Dismal Man” who appeared just before all the weirdness? Who is he? Why did he appear in Arkham and – more pressingly – in our dreams?
Then there’s the sickly folklorist who believes he’s figured out a technology to return to our world, a crumbling bank building full of the violently insane, demon-possessed occultists…and did we mention the serial killer?
Battling Against the Waves of Destruction from Ultimate Space
Stygian provides multiple means of solving these myriad mysteries, all dependent on what kind of character you’ve chosen or created. You can use intellect – science and occult knowledge alike – or psychological persuasion, or just fight your way through every conflict with revolvers and baseball bats.
In that, as well as in its delicately drawn, isometric art style, it reminded me a great deal of Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Obscura, with cosmic horror and pulp noir standing in for steampunk high fantasy.
Another similarity to my recollections of that game: I once again went for an intellectual character, hoping to use nonviolent methods to overcome every trial that Stygian threw my way, only to get thoroughly thumped the first time I encountered an unavoidable fight.
Fortunately, you can not only acquire companions on your quest but also also hire additional muscle to back you up before heading into a situation where combat might be likely (a necessity for my frail, elderly professor character).
Also fortunate: Stygian really does offer enough alternate approaches not only to story-line and side quests but to crafting, recovery, research, etc. that before even finishing the game I was already considering how I might approach things differently in my next play-through.
Cosmic Horrors Aplenty (and Mercifully Few Earthly Annoyances)
Stygian’s flaws are few. Despite the delicate interplay of multiple story threads and the availability of alternate solutions, it does feel a bit reliant on fetch quests at times, and the turn-based combat felt a little monotonous regardless of whether I was employing guns, fists, the black arts or the advanced martial strategy of running away.
Also, as expected for any game in the genre, it shoehorns every possible reference from Lovecraft’s stories into the game, from the titular characters of “The Terrible Old Man” and “The Outsider” to mentions of Pickman’s ghouls and the old Innsmouth families. Expected, but a little disappointing and forced at this point.
That said, Stygian is an impeccably crafted RPG in an unexpected setting that, though derivative in places, is dripping with unique style and provides a fresh perspective on a well-used set of characters and settings.
From its art style – again, think Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Obscura but drawn in the style of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey – to its exquisitely designed narrative and interlacing side quests, this is an essential turn-based RPG in the same vein as the first few Fallout games.
If you’re only going to play one game all full of Cthulhu in it this year, make it Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones.
Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones is available via Steam.
Watch the official Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones trailer below: