Title: Cyber Shadow
Developer: Mechanical Head Studios, Aarne Hunziker
Release Date: January 26, 2021
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Genre: 2D platformer
I’m always down for a challenging retro-inspired side scroller as I find it fascinating to see how developers implement modern gameplay sensibilities into the classic genre. Unfortunately, some rely too heavily on nostalgia over any real substance, resulting in a pretty shallow experience. Thankfully Cyber Shadow by developer Mechanical Head Studios and publisher Yacht Club Games mixes the best aspects of retro platforming with new exciting moves for an experience that is uniquely it’s own.
Cyber Shadow’s narrative is relatively ambiguous from the start. Your character, Shadow, is awakened mid recovery from a massive blast that has destroyed a whole city. The mechanical L-gion informs you that your master and ninja clan require your help. As you journey through the remaining ruins, you will butt heads with countless aggressive cybernetic enemies that have overrun the city.
Gameplay begins incredibly straightforward, with only a jump and a sword attack. After you complete levels or certain missions, you can obtain new attacks like a shuriken throw or upward flame strike. These actions make up for the lack of directional sword attacks. Special moves are typically initiated with the combination of the d-pad and strike button.
The trade-off is there is a slight lack of maneuverability, like crouching, which forces you to jump and move more to avoid obstacles. It’s not totally out of line with the era of games it’s emulating, but I was thrown off by the lack of the action when compared to a particular other ninja game on the NES. This only took some getting used to on my end and did add to the originality of the adventure. The same can be said for the other moves in the game, where your skills seem to evolve alongside Shadows.
Offensive special moves are limited and must be refilled by blue gems from item drops. This forces you to use them sparingly, which makes sense given the range and power some of the moves inflict.
Other moves like the double jump, wall-glide, and dash are unlimited to use. One of the standout techniques is the bullet deflect, which not only stops projectiles coming your way but can actually send them back at your enemies. It’s risky and requires you to time the d-pad perfectly with the oncoming bullet, but it is incredibly satisfying when you get it right.
There are also temporary blade upgrades that can be game-changers. These extend your blade range or give you a shield to deflect long-range weapons and last as long as you aren’t hit three times. On early levels, I managed to keep some of the upgrades until bosses which made the encounter infinitely easier.
I can see where diehard platformers may find upgrades turning early levels into a cakewalk, but there are still plenty of challenges to be had even with these handicaps for the average player. After these initial early stages, though, the difficulty ramps up.
Arguably some of Cyber Shadow’s most significant challenges come in its instant death pitfalls. Lava, spikes, and other instakills cover levels. They may seem deceptively avoidable but add in noticeable kickback when hit by enemies, making platforming a lot more precarious.
Enemies and projectiles swarm the screen, compounding precision platforming. Several enemies require a bit of familiarity and strategy to take out, and with many enemies on screen at once, Cyber Shadow asks you to think and move quickly.
Luckily, you have infinite lives, so you get a chance to try again and again. Savepoints can feel generous some moments and feel a world away in trickier areas. It makes clearing sections rewarding, though, when you finally make it to that next save. Save stations also serve as a store where money can purchase health and item restoration or temporary upgrades. These are all optional, so you can make the area more or less difficult for yourself depending on how you wish to play.
One of Cyber Shadow’s most impressive sections is its numerous bosses. Out of its ten levels, there are usually two bosses for each stage. Late game bosses are massive and stand out both design-wise and from an overall gameplay standpoint. I often felt like I reached the peak of my abilities during these fights, but with a bit of persistence and memorization of tells I was eventually able to overcome.
Based on Cyber Shadow’s influence, I wasn’t expecting a very long game but was pleasantly surprised at the 6 to 7 hours it took for me to complete the main game. For those that are genuinely looking for a challenge and additional content, there are several feats you can tackle. Many make an already punishingly tricky game even more insane, but they are enjoyable to take on.
Cyber Shadow’s level designs are exceptional and well-paced. In a later section of the game, you get to ride a motorcycle and control a mech suit. These completely change up your gameplay and took me by surprise. I kind of wish more of those elements were sprinkled throughout, but regardless they were definitely memorable sections.
Art and music design are fantastic and suit the 8-bit era that Cyber Shadow emulates and the atmosphere of the overall tech inspiration of its world.
The major nitpick I had were late-game stages do border on being close to unfair with their difficulty. It’s definitely doable, but sometimes it felt more like luck had a role in defeating some bosses and platforming more than anything I was doing differently control-wise. It’s something prevalent and expected in older games and, luckily, doesn’t show up too often.
I also think some special abilities didn’t necessarily benefit actual gameplay by how long it took to acquire them. Things like wall-glide seemed like they could have been introduced much sooner, but neither of these really hindered my overall experience.
Cyber Shadow is a beautifully crafted retro action experience complete with formidable enemies and crushing precision platforming. Abilities like the bullet deflect and dash strike provides the classic ninja experience without overloading on reused mechanics. On top of that, the length and replayability options give players a healthy serving of content tosing more time into refining their skills. If you are up for a humblingly difficult but intensely fun 2D side scroller Cyber Shadow just maybe the challenge you’re looking for.
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