Retro-inspired 2D action-platformers have been all the rage since Yacht Club Games released the utterly sublime Shovel Knight way back in 2014. Since then we have been hit with a bevvy of stellar attempts at rekindling, and more importantly, improving, those old-school masterpieces. Whilst one could argue we have already had a Ninja Gaiden inspired outing with The Messenger, there is no reason why someone else couldn’t give it another swing. Developed by Machine Head Studio and Published by the aforementioned Yacht Club Games, Cyber Shadow stealths onto the scene and mercilessly murders any notion that this game isn’t a mechanical masterpiece.
You play as Shadow – a ninja who finds himself in a bit of a pickle. He’s been in a pod for an indeterminate amount of time, the world is in a bit of a tissy, his clan is missing and his master might be dead. You are brought up to speed by a tiny – yet adorable – robot and then you are on your way to do…something. It was shortly after this point Cyber Shadow’s plot started to fall a bit flat. It is told mostly through exposition dumps, and whilst they can be visually stunning to witness, what is going on isn’t necessarily engaging.
What is engaging, however, is the gameplay. Shadow starts off with the stamina of a virgin and the strength comparable to overcooked tagliatelle. You can move, jump and swing your sword directly ahead of you and that’s about it. Needless to say, you are limited to the extreme. This isn’t your final form of course. As you carve a path of destruction through your various mechanical enemies, you will gain new skills that will allow you to do more things.
These range from simple attack upgrades to entirely new ways of engaging with your enemies. For example, attacking anything above you is risky and probably unwise. You eventually acquire an ability that covers that weakness. Many abilities also unlock new ways of travel. There is a wonderfully animated downward strike that allows you to kill enemies below you. It also lets you bounce off enemies and can be used over, and over to clear large gaps – essentially acting as a double, or even quadruple, jump. It doesn’t end there, as it also propels you in the direction you are moving, so you can use it as a jump extender without actually hitting any enemies. About halfway through you will unlock the game-changing Sprint ability. This turns Cyber Shadow from a Castlevania/Ninja Gaiden hybrid, to its own, completely distinct thing. One moment you are casually strolling through a goop-monster infested lab, and the next you are moving with the elegance and grace of a thousand tiny gymnasts and hurtling through the air like a ninja launched from a trebuchet. Touching the ground becomes a choice, and the game is never the same again.
For all of its mechanical depth the thing that keeps it feeling good from start to finish, is its controls. Cyber Shadow is a brutal game but remains mostly fair throughout thanks to the game being tighter than my jeans after lockdown. Shadow is responsive, quick, and most importantly, weighty. Jumping through the air whilst throwing a shuriken at one enemy, and slashing another coming from behind, before landing on a tiny platform is effortless and immensely satisfying. Mistakes are entirely on the player – you simply didn’t use the master-crafted tools bestowed upon you effectively enough.
The ability to kill enemies and traverse the environment would be wasted if the stages you interacted with were a bit crap. Thankfully Cyber Shadow doesn’t know the meaning of bad stage design and graces you with a cavalcade of excellence from the word go. Levels are large and sprawling with plenty of hidden goodies to be uncovered if you seek them out. Many of these collectables can’t be accessed without certain powerups, requiring some backtracking – further extending the game’s runtime. The game is also wildly varied in terms of what it is you will actually be doing. One level you could be dodging instant-death lasers, whilst dealing with Castlevania-esque Medusa wannabes, instant death spikes and vertical auto-scrolling. The next, you could be narrowly avoiding orbital bombardments whilst ninja-jumping through a destroyed city. There is quite literally, never a dull moment.
Each stage is capped off with what I consider to be the stars of the show – the bosses. These buggers are tough enough that you can’t just face tank them and swing wildly. No, you need to have mastered the abilities at your disposal, mastered their attack patterns, and in some cases, mastered the ability to keep your cool. As they get weaker, their patterns tend to change, and some even have several forms upping the challenge even more. Because the game is so finely tuned, I never felt cheated when I died – it was always me not being good enough. I overcame every boss in roughly 5-10 attempts, and each victory was euphoric as a result. As is often the case, you will get krumped mercilessly until you beat them…at which point you probably did it without taking a single hit. Very satisfying.
Whilst Cyber Shadow is an undeniably difficult game, both in terms of stages and bosses, it tends to lean towards the side of fairness. Tends to – not always. The game uses a checkpoint system that allows you to heal up, restock on spirit (the resource used to use special abilities) and even power up your attacks with various temporary buffs. The issue is, these can sometimes be spaced a bit too far apart. It wasn’t uncommon for me to go through many rooms, overcome multiple unique challenges only to die at the last hurdle and not hit a checkpoint. Strangely enough, in some stages checkpoints were everywhere. It’s inconsistent, which is the only knock I have against the game’s difficulty.
There is a fair amount of replayability in Cyber Shadow should you desire more content, although it does lack a New Game+ feature. I mentioned earlier the ability to backtrack for collectables, but that isn’t all. There are a bunch of optional challenges, or feats, to unlock. These add a whole new layer of difficulty to the game and force you to use Shadow’s move-set to its fullest to succeed. These aren’t for the faint of heart, but like everything else, are tasty morsels worth taking a bite out of.
Cyber Shadow, as I alluded to earlier, is retro-inspired. Not only in terms of gameplay but also visually. This is an 8-bit game with modern trappings sprinkled in for good measure. Needless to say, if you like this style, then Cyber Shadow will take you out back and tickle your fancies something rotten. The game oozes style like a viscous sauce that I couldn’t get enough of. This was only made better by the stunning soundtrack courtesy of Yacht Club Games. Every single tune is catchy to the extreme. This is modern-retro done right. I was jigging like a stereotypical white dude at a disco from start to finish.
Cyber Shadow is an achievement, not just a game. It manages to be nostalgic, yet modern. Difficult, yet fair. Dated, yet beautiful. There are very few criticisms I can raise. Among those, the majority don’t impact the experience in any meaningful way. If classically modern 2D action-platformers with a bit of spice is your thing; then Cyber Shadow is a must buy.
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