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Review: 9 Years Of Shadows

27 Mar 2023

After I was most of the way through 9 Years of Shadows, I asked our review editor if I was allowed to simply post an image to review the game. He was… not enthusiastic about that being the entire review, so I will instead write a full review. But I will include the image itself below, and trust me, once you see the whole review you’ll understand why I wanted to just include one picture with seven words of text on it.

9 Years of Shadow releases on March 27th for PC via Steam, which was obviously the version played for this review.

One Brings Shadow

Nine years ago, an orphanage at Talos Castle was the origin point for a truly vile curse. The curse has leeched the world around the castle of color, of emotions, of everything. The world has steadily eroded away, and what is left is a dark, hopeless world where many seek to explore the castle and end the curse… but none have succeeded.

Europa, a young woman with a halberd, enters the castle with little hope of curing anything. She simply would rather die in the castle than not trying to do anything. And as expected, very shortly after she arrives, she encounters the one point of color and light in the whole castle: a huge demon that she can’t even scratch with her strongest attacks. Hopeless, she resolves herself to her fate like her parents before her…

Then a small, glowing bear flies up to her, speaking in strange sibilant tones she can understand, and bringing light back to her and her surroundings. Apino seems to want to help Europa, to give her the means to stand against the darkness.

Thus begins Europa’s journey through the castle, but it really does have quite a bit more within it. While the broad strokes of the story will probably be obvious to anyone who has, you know, played a video game before (and/or pays the barest attention to the names of the abilities Apino collects), much of the story relies upon its execution. Europa is a kindhearted person at her core, roughened and pushed into an identity she doesn’t like in order to survive a world that has no place for her.

As a result, the story walks a difficult tightrope, at once having more plot than the obvious antecedent of the metroidvania genre while still giving Europa a sense of isolation and sorrow. Yet even as that happens, she steadily rebuilds herself, forging connections with Apino and the musicians roaming the castle. Her old mentor Draythus is roaming around as well, along with two painters who seem to know more than they’re letting on, and…

…well, I don’t want to spoil it. While it’s not the deepest or most original story, it gives a good context for why Europa is exploring, what she hopes to find, and what the stakes are for her quest. She’s a fun protagonist, and I especially like the musings she shares as she rides the various elevators between sections of the castle (although there are a bit too few of them for how often you’ll be riding).

One Brings the Light

So the plot is good. Not great, but good. But metroidvania games are more about the mechanics than anything, and here 9 Years Of Shadows gets up and does a dance with the best of them. Out of all the many games in this genre I’ve played in the past few years, this is up there with the all-time greats.

At the start of the game, Europa has a series of quick slashes with her halberd, a more powerful single strike she can combo into, an upward attack, and not much else. Like any game in the genre, she obviously gets more tools over the course of the game, but aside from Apino’s ability to freely aim and hit targets around the room (which we’ll come back to in a moment) and her early ability to charge up a spinning slash, that’s about it for her combat moves. The core is built around having solid, responsive, and clean basic moves and then putting them together.

But that’s not to say that Europa’s arsenal doesn’t develop. As she explores the castle, she collects a quartet of elemental armors – lightning, fire, earth, and water. Each armor lets her deal extra damage to enemies outlined with a corresponding glow effect, and each one other than lightning also allows her to traverse new environments, like earth negating poison-filled chambers and water allowing her to travel through water. There are even quick transformations available to her in each form, like turning into a mermaid underwater or riding on thermal updrafts in her flame outfit.

Of course, the game also swaps you to the relevant armor when you encounter its native environment… which leads naturally to puzzles. If you need to hit a yellow switch in a poison-filled room, you need to find a way to drain the poison so that you can swap to lightning and trigger it. The game does a good job of building escalating complexity with Europa’s powers over the course of its runtime, with several tricky bits that fall just on the right side of frustrating.

Apino’s projectiles are also important as well, but it’s here that the game has another trick with its light field mechanic. Europa only has a couple pips of health (she can eventually upgrade to four total) and once those are gone, she dies. However, Apino and his light form a protective bubble around her that is reduced when she takes damage or when he fires projectiles. Only when the barrier is gone does she take actual damage. Hitting enemies refills it, but you can also take a moment to hug Apino and get about half of it back at the cost of a second of vulnerability.

The result is a fusion of a bunch of health systems that works astonishingly well across the board. Most of the game’s larger bosses have segments where you need to pepper them with Apino to let Europa really pound on the boss, and that means that taking a bunch of damage will also force you to miss unloading on the boss. While there’s a certain element of “wait until the boss is vulnerable” here, bosses don’t last long enough for it to become truly annoying. And there are other smaller bosses for quests that you can just damage continually.

It’s not all perfectly pitched and a couple of bosses proved to be consistent roadblocks for me without a fair bit of practice, but none of them ever quite tilt over into being annoying straight through to the end. Mix in upgrades to your stats like health, light bar, and attack, quests to complete, secrets to hunt down, and so forth, and what you have is a consistently entertaining metroidvania title that does what so rarely happens in this genre by no longer feeling like it’s trying to be other games.

Sure, there are traces of games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid and Hollow Knight and so forth. But rather than feeling like the developers trying to remake one of those games, it feels very much like its own distinct thing. I honestly had a blast with it right up through the last boss fight, and at around eleven hours to clear everything, it wasn’t a short ride despite the relatively small list of upgrades.

Four-Toned Echoes

Graphically, the game just looks flat-out gorgeous. Looking back across development the developers clearly experimented with a lot of styles, but they seem to have settled on a look reminiscent of SNES games with far more colors than that actual hardware could produce. Character portraits are far more detailed than the sprite artwork, but they still recognizably match despite this.

It’s also musically amazing, which should not be surprising; the music includes work from Norihiko Hibino (best known for working on several Metal Gear games as well as the original Bayonetta) and Michiru Yamane (best known for her work on Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as well as Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night). Both composers actually show up as NPCs in the game in subtle cameos that work quite well, and in general there’s a bit of a musical theme running through the whole game. It’s not a major element, but the fact that Europa’s save points are pianos for her to play familiar songs on is a nice touch.

At best, all I can complain about is that sometimes the music is a little loud and drowns out the otherwise solid sound design. There’s no voice acting aside from Europa’s cry of triumph and similar incidentals, but that hardly subtracts from the game in any way.

The biggest criticism I have is actually that the game is a bit buggy. At least one part of the map shows that there’s supposed to be a door where I cannot find one for the life of me. My first time into one zone, the zone transitions didn’t load correctly and the graphics slightly glitched. Frequently the game would crash when choosing “Continue” after a death, and once even when trying to just exit to menu. At one point late-game Europa’s light bar vanished. A quest once failed to conclude properly because an NPC was standing too close to another and auto-triggered a different dialogue window.

None of these are game-breaking, although that map error is probably the reason I missed one item shy of 100% completion. They are mildly annoying, however. Then again… when you’re enjoying the package this much, they’re likely to feel like only minor inconveniences.

Fade Into Bright

If it weren’t already clear from the review up to this point, I adored this game. 9 Years of Shadows is a rare delight in a subgenre that has become a bit overstuffed of late, a careful and fun romp that speaks to the best of its genre by at once feeling almost effortlessly engrossing and yet impossible to put down. Every time I stopped playing I couldn’t wait to get back into the castle, and even though I saw where the major plot twists were very early on I was still happy as they unfolded.

Players who are familiar with metroidvania games will find a game that has many familiar pieces, but it arranges them and uses the tropes in novel ways. Players who aren’t familiar can enjoy it as a more open platformer with solid combat. Heck, it’s well worth playing if you just fancy women with eyepatches, and I imagine there’s something to be said about the fact that Europa does appear to be missing an eye but isn’t somehow treated as lesser because of it.

So what was the image I whipped up?

If any part of 9 Years of Shadows looks appealing to you, you owe it to yourself to pick it up. This is an amazing game made by a heretofore unknown team, and I can only hope that Halberd Studios has plans for a follow-up. They deserve to be showered in praise, and this game deserves your time and attention.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Game provided by Freedom Games for purposes of review. All screenshots courtesy Freedom Games.