9 Years of Shadows Review – A solid and refreshing addition to the genre

Gare – Monday, March 27, 2023 3:30 PM
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It is a somewhat rare yet undoubtedly pleasant occasion whenever I play a game that sort of just… gets it. As in, it gets exactly what it needs to do in order to be a satisfying representation of its genre, ticking almost every single imaginary checkbox on the list of metroidvaniaism. And that’s more or less what 9 Years of Shadows is: a game that knows what it wants to be, and goes on to polish a tried-and-true formula to near-perfection. It’s clearly a love letter to its many predecessors, and although it’s not without flaws, developer Halberd Studios has managed to produce an immensely solid title that any old fan of the classic ‘Vanias should give a chance.

But let’s actually dive into what makes 9 Years of Shadows so effective. Presentation is, of course, a key factor. Visually, the game combines traditional pixel art with its own, unique blend of vibrant colors – striking purples, bold yellows and dreamy blues strewn across a nostalgic canvas of 16-bit goodness. It gives the game a look of freshness and familiarity at the same time, which is further propped up by gorgeously drawn, anime-style cutscenes and character portraits, and backed by a soundtrack that, at times, evokes Symphony of the Night, at others, it dives head-first into soothing, jazzy tunes.

A classic formula

  So far, what I’ve told you is that 9 Years of Shadows looks and sounds great, but a metroidvania lives or dies by its gameplay – thankfully, I have mostly praise to offer on this front as well. While this isn’t entirely apparent right off the bat, the essence of 9 Years of Shadows lies in protagonist Europa’s elemental vestments, as well as the unique powers of her floating teddy bear companion, Apino. Yes, you have a floating teddy bear companion. Just roll with it. Either way, the game unfolds more or less how you’d expect it to: you’re let loose inside a spacious castle of countless rooms, elemental biomes, secret hallways and tricky passages, all teeming with enemies. As you progress further and defeat bosses, your repertoire of abilities continues to grow: by unlocking new sets of armor corresponding to various elements like earth, fire, water and so on, you also gain access to unique traversal abilities that will let you enter previously inaccessible areas.

Granted, this is all classic metroidvania stuff, there’s nothing new here – but not only is it executed very well, it’s also carefully sewn into every aspect of the game. For example, the Poseidon armor will allow you to breathe underwater, but it also grants you the ability to turn into a mermaid-like creature and swim up waterfalls; similarly, the Gaia armor lets you turn into a tiny, Metroid-like ball and speed through underground tunnels like a miniature bullet train. Needless to say, the aforementioned abilities aren’t used exclusively for traversal: they’re also utilized during boss fights in various creative ways, forcing players to understand and fully master all of their new skills and traits in order to progress through the game; in essence, almost every boss encounter becomes a mini-puzzle in its own right that makes use of Europa’s ever-growing arsenal of abilities, sometimes even overlapping them in pleasantly unexpected ways.

Hug the bear, charge the shield

These boss fights can be tough (never too tough, though), but they’re always fair, especially when you consider the game’s health gauge system. Essentially, Europa has a long-ish shield gauge, which is accompanied by a handful of vitality points. Think of them as your Zelda-inspired hearts – you start with only one, but upgrades can get you to two, three or even four by the end of the adventure. Naturally, the shield will absorb the brunt of your attacks, but when it’s depleted, you only have your limited vitality points to fall back on. Here's where things get interesting, though: by holding down a button, you can hug Apino and regain a portion of your shield bar, but this takes a few seconds and leaves you exposed to attacks. Alternatively, there’s also a very quick QTE-like prompt that shows up whenever your shield bar is completely depleted; if you press the necessary button at the right time, your shield will be full recharged, allowing you to stay in the game even during longer boss fights. By giving players these lifelines, the campaign’s multitude of bosses can be easily defeated with a reasonable amount of practice, and things never feel overly punishing – after all, with good enough reflexes and well-timed button presses, you can keep your shield from depleting, which, in my opinion, helps the game strike a reasonably satisfying balance between accessibility and providing players with a moderate amount of challenge.

Slow travel

Now, as you can no doubt tell by now, I’m quite fond of 9 Years of Shadows. I do, however, have one major gripe with it, and this is admittedly a pretty egregious blunder that I wasn’t expecting to encounter in a metroidvania, especially one so well-crafted. In short, the game’s fast travel options are exasperatingly limited, which, in a genre all about exploration and backtracking, might seem more than a little odd. Indeed, in most games of this nature, you’d usually be able to unlock teleport spots to effortlessly zoom across the map in case you need to return to a previously visited location. In 9 Years of Shadows, however, there’s only a central elevator in the middle of the castle, with a bafflingly small amount of floors available. This is all you will have throughout the entire game, so if you missed anything during your exploration of the game’s labyrinthine areas, you’ll have to go back on foot. While this didn’t completely sour my enjoyment of the game, it did put a bit of a damper on my mood, and made me less eager to go for 100% completion.

As a side note, and this is unrelated to fast travel, but I also would’ve liked to see a bigger arsenal of weapons and attacks – throughout the game, Europa wields only her trusty halberd, and while she does unlock a few new moves here and there, combat still ended up feeling somewhat stale by the time I reached the finale. And while we’re on the topic of things I wasn’t super fond of, the storyline – at least to me – felt rather forgettable as well. While it does attempt to tug at the heartstrings, at the end of the day, it’s more or less what you’d expect from an anime aimed at younger audiences: generally inoffensive, but also immensely predictable.

Final thoughts

9 Years of ShadowsPlatform: WindowsGenre: Action, AdventureDeveloper: Halberd StudiosPublisher: Freedom GamesRelease: 03/27/2023These minor gripes aside, I think it’s safe to say that I had an absolute blast with 9 Years of Shadows. Its vibrant locations and snazzy soundtrack, as well as the sheer variety of its gameplay elements – and how each elemental armor is utilized for both combat and traversal – make it very easy for me to give this one a resounding thumbs up. The storyline is a bit of a letdown and I could’ve done with more fast travel options, but frankly, I don’t play these types of games for their narratives, and the somewhat tedious backtracking is hardly a deal breaker, either. If you’re at all interested in well-made metroidvanias, 9 Years of Shadows is a game I’d highly recommend checking out.

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