9 Years of Shadows Review – Resound, Repressive Rigor

    Title: 9 Years of Shadows
    Developer: Halberd Studios
    Release Date: March 27, 2023
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Freedom Games
    Genre: Metroidvania, Action

For all intents and purposes, the inherently all-encompassing broadness of the metroidvania genre makes it difficult to truly get tired of. And the Halberd Studios-developed 9 Years of Shadows emphasizes that point tenfold. Despite not reinventing the wheel or doing anything mechanically novel, its presentation, gameplay pacing, and sense of progression offer one of the most sublime outings on the market. But, unfortunately, its technical performance makes it stumble far too often, causing a troubling, mixed, and inconsistent experience.

9 Years of Shadows follows protagonist Europa, a woman who’s lost everything, including her family, to a treacherous curse sapping the world of color and life. Now, after years of battle-hardened training, she approaches Talos Castle, from which the curse is said to have been initiated, with the intention of ridding it once and for all. Then, after nearly falling victim to one of the castle’s roaming monsters, a bizarre bear-like creature named Apino arrives and saves her life, also acting as a newfound lease on potentially prevailing the trials of this locale.

Nine Years of Shadows
[NOTE: We do have a video review releasing next week.]
Europa will also meet several other individuals throughout Talos Castle, yet gameplay takes precedence, with a well-constructed map that cleanly informs players of where they are at all times. This may seem like a minor and self-explanatory point not requiring emphasis. Still, after playing some recent games that try to make their maps too fancy or multi-faceted, it’s honestly relieving to have an implementation of it that’s just nice and simple.

The aforementioned NPCs Europa will meet in this structure are all significant, as they each provide quests or act as vehicles for upgrades. The latter set of individuals is actually grouped, lending toward convenience. Europa’s equipment and such can be enhanced, though the variety of choices is pretty limited. However, this isn’t a flaw at all since the manual selection can make the perceived growth feel more satisfying. Plus, their acquisitions depend on resources earned via exploration and enemy slaying, so the systems, while compact, work well together.

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Regarding combat, Europa’s attacks are few in number yet highly effective. Expected directional variation is present, providing situational on-the-fly action. When taking both Europa’s and the enemies’ movement into account, the combat’s speed is relatively moderate, so there’s rarely any occasion where you’ll find yourself overwhelmed. Admittedly, some of the boss battles defy this notion, but if you’re used to playing more fast-paced metroidvanias and the like, 9 Years of Shadows could be a gratifying change of pace.

Still, the real spice of the gameplay arrives in the elemental armors. As progress is made throughout the castle, you’ll obtain new equipment that enables traversal to previously inaccessible areas while also granting enhanced offensive power against particular foes; typical metroidvania facets. Despite how commonplace this implementation is throughout the genre, though, the usage of it here deserves emphasized praise. Not only is switching between these armors immediate via a single button press, allowing for immersive seamlessness, but one particular armor really impressed me.

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At a certain point, Europa will gain equipment, letting her swim underwater, and the sheer swiftness and smoothness of the movement here genuinely astounded me to no end. There are numerous examples of reminiscence I could point to, the first being that the sensation of free motion heavily reminded me of the original The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask when Link uses the Zora mask. Of course, there are differences between the games, the most obvious being that 9 Years of Shadows is 2D. Still, I feel a certain, highly specific sense of delight whenever a game gets underwater navigation right, and these two games are now the first ones I think of as perfect examples.

Apino, the bear traveling with you, is also noteworthy. It can shoot out projectiles needed for accessing pathways and defeating certain foes. Moreover, it acts as Europa’s lifeline. To elaborate, whenever Europa shoots out an attack from Apino, a gauge illustrates the creature’s remaining energy. If you’re hit while at least some partial amount of this gauge is around, you’ll be fine, only staggered. However, if the gauge is empty and you’re hit then, one of Europa’s hearts is depleted, signifying lost health. Thankfully, successfully attacking foes and hugging Apino, done by holding down a button for a set period of time, restores the gauge, but you should always make sure there’s some of it remaining for emergency contexts where you’re facing new enemies you don’t yet understand.

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This design choice is pretty wise in hindsight because it limits the potential spamming that Apino could cause from afar and rewards necessitated conservation. Further, this direct connectivity between Europa and Apino simultaneously elevates their bond and the player’s care for the animal. In several cases, with how I see it anyway, mascot character implementation is rarely meaningful since they attempt to induce hollow positivity. They’re probably just there for marketing or the like, so when mascots are actually used well, such as in this inherently affixed manner, I can’t help but appreciate it.

I briefly noted the boss fights earlier; they’re alright. Mechanically, they boast fair telegraphs and get the job done of being skill checks with strategies comparable to how you deal with standard mobs, except on a more intricate scale. Honestly, I found their movesets and general challenge levels lacking, but they were quite fun, regardless. If anything, I’d say their appearances stood out the most, which ties into one of this game’s strongest traits, its presentation.

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9 Years of Shadows’ identity heavily revolves around its soundtrack and display, as the game’s narrative and themes tie into long-sought-after rejuvenation. In fact, the title begins in pure black and white, instilling the intensely grim context Europa has thrown herself into. As for the songs, the previously mentioned NPCs who upgrade your toolkit, and some others you find, are musical performers. While this all may seem random, these elements meld and tie into a thematic culmination that makes the journey worthwhile.

Unfortunately, the most critical fault of 9 Years of Shadows is its performance. Even though it’s usually fine, the game would frequently face intermittent slowdown that would actively interfere with combat scenarios and platforming, causing lost time and damage that would have been retained otherwise. Further, whenever I died, the title would always crash. I tested this around a dozen or so times in different spots to make sure, and, at least in my experience, this issue appears consistent. Crashes outside of that scenario occur, too, to seemingly random extents. Sadly, the prominence of these faults makes playing this title needlessly frustrating.

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9 Years of Shadows is a gorgeous metroidvania boasting terrific progression that I’d ordinarily recommend to all fans in a heartbeat. Its combat also thrives, with meticulous, loving effort evident in countless spots. Yet, these strengths make the performance faults all the more disappointing. What could have been a must-play outing of this jam-packed genre has instead become a regretful cautionary tale.

Hopefully, post-launch patches will arrive to remedy this experience to its best possible iteration because it deserves it. Underneath it all, 9 years of Shadows is a fantastic time assumedly hampered by developmental circumstances.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Orpheus Joshua

Random gamer equally confused by the mainstream and the unusual.