9 Years of Shadows Review: Majestic Metroidvania (PC)

With enough eye and ear candy to make your senses squee and more bosses and character upgrades than you can shake a pointy axe-stick at, 9 Years of Shadows hits all the right Metroidvania notes. You’ll find a lot to love within the game’s labyrinthine, living castle, so have a read of our full review to see how well it all comes together.

9 Years of Shadows Review: Majestic Metroidvania

I’m a big fan of halberds. A spear and an axe, all at once? Poke and slash? Sign me up. And yet so few games do them justice. Well who better to swoop in and fill that void than Halberd Studios. In their vibrant retro-styled Metroidvania, 9 Years of Shadows, you play as Europa, who is very good at the poking and the slashing. Spin the mighty polearm over your head, skewer the cursed ones with a flurry of thrusts, or just flail it chaotically in the air like you just don’t care. All important and satisfying techniques as you traverse the tainted hallways of Talos Castle.

Halberds aside (for now), the extremely attractive elephant in the room is the visual style. The pixel-art in 9 Years of Shadows is literally stunning. I stopped in my tracks when I scrolled past a screenshot. Looks aren’t everything, of course, but in this case they’re worth noting up front as the clearest representation of the love that’s been poured into every facet of the game. From the teddy bear hugging mechanic (seriously) to the bullet hell boss fights, everything oozes character.

There are a few quirks to go along with that strong personality, as well as some frustrating missed potential here and there, but I challenge you to stay mad at a game that asks you to cuddle a soft toy to stay alive.

 9 Years of Shadows is available on Steam, with a planned future release on Switch.

9 Years of Shadows | Official Trailer

Story – The Curse of Colourlessness

Europa, the sartorially gifted warrior protagonist, has decided to have a crack at breaking a curse that has robbed the land of its colour for the last 9 years. The source of the nastiness appears to reside within Talos Castle, so there’s your excuse to explore a sprawling labyrinth collecting goodies and killing baddies. A couple of narrative threads dance around each other as the game progresses and you’ll find some endearing NPCs with their own tales to tell, which makes for a good bit of story to keep you motivated beyond the core gameplay.

There’s a decent blend of themes within the main plotline. Enough melancholy in there for miserable sods like me, with thoughtful and uplifting, sometimes touching notes that even I appreciated. You won’t find anything overly profound here, though, and I wish I could have felt a little more invested in Europa’s character. Her frequent dialogues and monologues provide some backstory and touch on relatable struggles such as self-doubt, trust issues, and even imposter syndrome, but never in enough depth to be particularly impactful.

Can't shake the feeling I'm being followed...

Can’t shake the feeling I’m being followed…

Still, her relationship with the adorable, huggable ghost-bear, Apino, is a winner. The fluffy, floaty fella provides a magic shield and shoots projectiles of light to chip away at enemies and activate switches. As always, incorporating the side character into gameplay is a sure-fire way to strengthen the player’s affinity for them.

Did I mention the castle itself is, like, alive? Not in the squelchy, pulsating walls of meat kind of way that we’ve seen in games approximately way too many times before. This is a more subtle sentience that lends itself well to environmental story-telling and compelling playable sequences. All of the above provides a very solid contextual foundation to build gameplay upon. 

Gameplay – Halberdy Heaven

9 Years of Shadows is certainly a Metroidvania. It’s a shining example that takes inspiration from all the right places, tastefully nodding at the OGs we know and love but doing so with a sublime flavour of its own. Its innovations never transcend the genre, but for me, that’s not fundamentally a bad thing. It’s always good to push the envelope, but there’s a time to leave it comfortably un-pushed, too. 

Look at that halberd twirl!

Look at that halberd twirl!

You know the drill, then. A Metroid map, complete with save rooms and hidden chambers, reveals itself as you slash and swim and double jump your way through the many uniquely-themed zones. ‘Vania enemies look to hack you down along the way with their primitive, nostalgic movement patterns. The inspiration is laid on thick on all accounts. Even those nasty knight dudes from multiple Castlevania entries appear nearly unchanged mechanically, just sporting a more pointy, anime-looking skin and lobbing meat boomerangs instead of axes. Obviously.

So where does 9 Years of Shadows shine? Well that gleaming, golden halberd, for starters. There are a few attacks at your disposal, each of which feels so satisfying to smack things around with, the lack of additional weapons and skills throughout most of the game doesn’t feel like an issue. Variety instead takes the form of movement upgrades and the elemental armour sets hidden around Talos. Other than looking entirely badass, each set enables progress through otherwise hazardous zones. They also have their own alternate, mythical forms that provide unique modes of traversal. I guarantee every time you find new armour, you’ll say “oh this one’s my favourite now, I’ll always wear this one!” Until you find the next one. Happily, you can switch between the sets at the press of a shoulder button whenever the mood or the environment strikes.

The water-themed armour adds some nice splashy effects when you attack

The water-themed armour adds some nice splashy effects when you attack

Versatile Traversatile

Yes, ‘traversatile’ is a word. Don’t look it up. So Talon Castle requires frequent use of all movement options at your disposal. You’ll constantly get that satisfaction of putting to use a new skill in an area that was previously only a mysterious dead-end. For most of the game’s roughly 9-hour runtime, the level design stays fresh and engages your brain parts just enough to keep you occupied. At some point, though, the environmental puzzles fail to step up to that final level of intricacy that’s really needed to entirely stave off boredom and fully capitalise on the potential that’s so tantalisingly close. 

It seems I'm not alone in this pool...

It seems I’m not alone in this pool…

It seems as though Halberd recognised the possibilities, too. A lot of the early use of your mythical forms feels like familiarisation before things become truly taxing. But tragically, none of it ever progresses beyond very mildly challenging, and therefore only very mildly rewarding. Thankfully you have that wicked cool polearm and an absolutely slapping soundtrack to take the sting off the underwhelming sections. More on those musical bops later.

Not Just a Fluffy Face

Even more so than the glorious halberd (did I mention how glorious it is?) and elemental armour, Apino the bear contributes massively to 9 Years of Shadows’ distinctive feel in every aspect. He provides the shield that you can see indicated by a blue bar at the top of the screenshots. The little gems to the left of it represent hit points, which are vulnerable when the bar is depleted. At any time, you can aim Apino with the right-stick and have him fire off some bullets of light, which also eats away at the shield. The ol’ trade off between offense and defence. We see you, Halberd!

There are two ways to replenish Apino’s light outside of save rooms. The slower but easier and infinitely more wholesome approach is to give him a little hug. Adorable. How could you possibly not love it. What with the charming animation and all, this one takes a few seconds, which, during boss fights at least, you often don’t have to spare. Enter the instant recovery upgrade. The moment that light meter hits zero, whether that’s due to an enemy attack or your own decision to fire off more projectiles, a small timing bar appears over Europa’s head. If you react fast and stop a cursor on the sweet spot as it hastily sweeps across, you’re immediately rewarded with a fully loaded shield. So you can get back to your trigger-happy ways.

Just hug it out

Just hug it out

More Pro Than Con

Compared to a straightforward hit point system, the light shield leads to some fascinating gameplay. During those hectic boss fights, for example, there’s no time to stand around cuddling, so instant recovery is ideal. When you’re running low on light, you might want to fire off a couple of rounds in a spare moment to deplete your reserves and give yourself a shot at the timer. In fact, this became a key strategy for me in tougher fights once I became more comfortable with the timing. But the prospect of whiffing the recovery and winding up shieldless with exposed health gems looms large. It’s a perfect risk-reward mechanic.

Occasionally, I’d projectile away the remaining light juice to commence the instant recovery technique only for a boss to blast an unexpected volley of deadly orb things my way. In that instance all that’s left to do is lean into the madness. Leap and crouch your way through the barrage of death balls all whilst keeping an eye on the timer bar and smacking the trigger at precisely the right moment. Tell you what, when you pull it off, you feel like a hero and a scholar. 

Just a couple of slight distractions as I time the recovery, here...

Just a couple of slight distractions as I time the recovery, here…

There is a downside to all this, in that it further disarms an overworld that already sits pretty low on the difficulty scale. When you don’t have a demented dwarf throwing tomatoes at you or a giant bird of prey trying to rip you and your magnificent halberd to bits, there’s nothing to stop you backtracking a few feet when you get into trouble and restocking your shield risk-free. The triumphs of the system absolutely outweigh this difficulty-nerfing issue, but with some more punishing enemies and claustrophobic map design here and there, we could have had the best of both worlds. 

Very Big Bosses

As you might have inferred by now, bosses in 9 Years of Shadows are intense. Between waves of bullets, warning markers for imminent laser beams, and huge, flailing blades, there’s plenty to think about. Ideally you’ll find time to dish out some damage of your own, too, not to mention manage the light meter. The vast majority of these big nasties hit the perfect difficulty level to hypnotise you into a banger of a flow state. For minutes, your entire existence melts away. All that remains is your monitor and the neon pixels pirouetting across it. 

There's a lot more where that came from

There’s a lot more where that came from

None of these fights are ultra difficult, but most of them will wipe you out a good few times before you make it through, and even then you really need that flow state. Miraculously, I only remember one instance of unfair difficulty, owing to some bullets blazing in from offscreen too quickly to realistically avoid. Other than that, the bosses are all just really, really good fun. Oh, and they become progressively redder as you halberd the hell out of themDefinitely my favourite of the Super Metroid references I spotted. 

One and Done?

If replay value is important to you, 9 Years of Shadows is likely to leave you wanting more. It’s not a difficult 100%. I managed 97% completion without being especially conscientious. Obligatory hidden rooms containing upgrade currency are all present and correct, but there aren’t bloody millions of them like there are in some contemporaries. Personally, I find this to be a breath of fresh air. I’ll never be bothered to trawl through Hollownest or even Zebes inspecting every wall and corner, so Talos Castle is my cup of time-respecting tea. 

It's easy to miss those gorgeous backdrops when there's so much action happening

It’s easy to miss those gorgeous backdrops when there’s so much action happening

Even I felt a pang of disappointment, though, when the credit roll concluded without plopping a Hard Mode or New Game + option on the title screen. This is planned for future updates, but as of now, 9 Years of Shadows will be a one-and-done affair for most. Even so, it’s worth the price of admission without question.

Graphics and Sound – Treats

That Elephant, Though

Have the screenshots made you drool on yourself yet? Oh, er, me neither. Still, if you’re into things that look good, you’ll appreciate the visual masterclass this game offers. It showcases some of the best pixel art I’ve seen in a long while, and its passionate blend of influences ranging from oldskool Metroidvanias, bullet hell shmups, and classic manga comes together to form an absolutely belting style. 

Halberd beats outrageously huge scythe any day

Halberd beats outrageously huge scythe any day

Europa’s animations benefit from subtle motion blur and all the anime spectacle you could hope for, translated into nostalgic pixel sprites that just look phenomenal. There’s that barely noticeable choppiness to attacks that only lends more weight to each swing. Some of the bigger enemies look like they have a couple too few frames of animation to fluidly support their movement, but you could almost argue this is a style choice to emphasize that classic Castlevania vibe. 

The Halls Are Alive

What you won’t get from the screenshots is a sense of the soundtrack, which caught my ear when I watched a trailer. I was very pleased to find that similarly crisp yet atmospheric electronic compositions elevate the whole game. No surprise the music a success, considering Norihiko Hibino and Michiru Yamane, of Metal Gear Solid and Castlevania fame respectively, both contributed. There’s a prominent theme of music and art running throughout 9 Years of Shadow, so the pressure was on to get this stuff right.

Apino entranced by the lone trumpeter

Apino entranced by the lone trumpeter

When scoring a game revolving around castles and (glorious) halberds and the like, there’s surely the temptation to bring out the ol’ medieval instrumentation. Harpsichords, organs, y’know, castley stuff. But 9 Years of Shadows is more ethereal than that. It’s not of this world, and that’s reflected in the soundtrack. There’re hypnotic, arpeggiated piano textures, but also swirling, layered synths and even percussion that hints at intelligent trap and drum and bass influence.

It’s always thoughtful and precisely captures the right energy. There are no senseless flurries of discordance just because ‘boss fights should be chaotic’. No, the gameplay itself does more than enough to invoke urgency and panic, leaving the accompaniment to stack new emotions on top. Great soundtracks don’t just elevate gameplay, but change the entire tone of the experience in a way that can’t quite be described in words. That phenomenon is in full effect here.

9 Years of Shadows was reviewed on PC (Steam) with a key provided by StridePR.

9 Years of Shadows will draw you in with masterful pixel art and irresistible music, then keep you hooked with its glorious halberdy action and overall strength of character. Despite some overly forgiving map design and limited replay value, this is a Metroidvania you might just fall in love with. An ideal entry point for newcomers to the genre, a must-play for long-time fans.
  • Stunning pixel art and soundtrack
  • Halberd!
  • Dynamite boss fights
  • Light shield mechanic is a triumph
  • Clearly crafted with love
  • Overworld starts to lack any real challenge
  • Some missed potential in story and puzzles
  • No Hard mode or New Game+ as yet

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