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Cyber Shadow Review

First Impressions

Background

Recently released, Cyber Shadow was available day one on Game Pass. The developers: Yacht Club Games who were also responsible for Shovel Knight clearly have experience with side-scrolling action games. They have referenced Mega Man among other titles as inspiration for Cyber Shadow and it certainly shows.

Presentation

The commitment to 8-bit ascetics is clear. This game truly looks, sounds, and plays like it was released on NES but the presentation is refined to hold its own even for those like me who are not die-hard 8-bit fanatics. The enemy and environment were also designed carefully enough that there is never any confusion as to what an enemy or a projectile or what the background was. This was done while also giving enough variety that the levels never looked the same, which is impressive to do with so few pixels.

While the 8-bit visuals never put me off, the soundtrack did at times. The music was high-energy to match the relentless challenge of the gameplay, but it was often harsh and repetitive, and I found myself turning the volume down low to tolerate it in longer sessions.

Initial Thoughts

Initially the gameplay felt as basic and stripped-down as the presentation. The protagonist, Shadow, can jump and slash and that is about it. Everything felt good, though, even from the beginning jumping and slashing enemies was easy and clean, and the 8-bit animations were thoughtful in adding to the sense of being a ninja.

With everything stripped back it was easy to focus on any flaws in the gameplay and the level design, but there really was not any. There was no fat on this game; every platform and every enemy was thoughtfully placed and it made for a challenging experience that rewarded patience and attention to detail.

Gameplay

Abilities and Progression

Shadow starts off with the ability to jump and slash. I was simply tasked with moving forward without losing all my health and that goal never changed. As the game progressed Shadow gained more and more abilities, including special attacks that I could use by expending spirit. Both health and spirit could be collected by slashing open chests or enemies throughout the world, along with an in-game currency. None of these mechanics are ground-breaking but they are implemented so well and paced out in such a way that I never grew bored before unlocking a new ability. Each ability felt useful, too, and the levels and enemies evolved with my ability to fight them.

The in-game currency could be invested at points to restore health and spirit or to access a temporary item that gave another fun dimension to the gameplay. These items, though, go from feeling like overpowered super-weapons in the early levels to tools that were vital to my survival in the late game. Even though these did have to be bought in most scenarios, I died so much that the coins I collected in each of those deaths allowed me to always buy whatever I needed. This was a thoughtful addition to give less skilled players a leg up every step of the way.

Level Design

Cyber Shadow’s levels are rolled out linearly with check points that allowed me to heal and save often between intense platforming and combat sections. Every couple of rooms there would be a check point meaning I never had to redo more than a minute of gameplay which I really appreciated. The game is very difficult, but with checkpoints being so often it is the kind of challenge that I enjoy. Cyber Shadow tests strong environment and enemy awareness and precise controls but lays them out in short sprints vs forcing me to remain perfect for marathon sequences with fear of losing progress. I could even invest in these checkpoints to max out health and spirit or give additional bonuses.

At its best the levels are also carefully laid out so that I could work my way through a couple of rooms before breaking open a shortcut that allowed me to re-use a checkpoint that I had already invested into. I wish this happened more often, but still I cannot complain about the checkpoint system at all.

Each level adds a new environmental challenge to be aware of while still fending off synthetic lifeforms – like an airship that shoots a laser down on me when I went outside in Chapter 3, or the electric floors I had to carefully avoid in Chapter 4. These mechanics are methodically integrated into each level, and never stick around long enough to grow tiring. Even when I thought I understood the gameplay cycle of the chapters the game threw me for some unexpected turns, dropping Shadow into exceptional new environments that I won’t spoil here.

Again, with the 8-bit visuals and minimal platforming options the level and enemy design could shine front-and-center. The game was careful to show me just the right amount of the level ahead of me to prepare me in a fair way while still ramping up the difficulty steadily. Most issues I had with frustrating sequences or unpredictable enemies were when I was not paying enough attention to what the level was showing me. A simple enemy like a floating jellyfish will be introduced as an easy to kill, almost harmless target. Next a large enemy that shoots electricity will be shown. This poses more of a challenge, dodging its projectiles, but it was shown from enough distance that I understood the pattern by the time I reached it. Then from the edge of the screen I see the jellyfish again interacting with the electricity, turning the weak enemy into a real threat. Again, and again, the game teaches me and prepares me for the challenge it is about to throw me.

Controls

One of my only gripes with this game is in its controls. From the beginning Shadows movement and controls felt intuitive, jumping with A and slashing with X while moving with the joystick. However, when more and more abilities were added I realized that 1) the control scheme was decided on as if it were being played on an original NES, and 2) I was should have been controlling Shadow with the directional pad and not the joystick.

The fact that sprint is toggled by double tapping the right, and that parry is also triggered by tapping right, while right also just moves Shadow right is an astounding decision. I had to relearn how to play halfway through the game as I shifted form joystick to d-pad and the controls never felt like second nature from there. I appreciate the commitment to the NES-style 8-bit game, but the fact that a more modern control option that uses the rest of the face buttons or the triggers doesn’t exist is a misstep in my mind.

This control scheme also limits Shadow’s options, as Shadow eventually can swing their sword upward, but only after their spirit is drained, as having spirit turns those controls into a special ability. These small control issues could have easily been remedied by allowing the player to utilize a modern controller.

Lasting Impressions

Story

Cyber Shadow’s story unfolds though flashback cutscenes and interacting with computers or dying allies throughout the world. The story holds a lot of intrigue and again it takes shadow into some exciting places that keep the game environments fresh. The creators threw so many cartoonish/anime themes and ideas into the story with references thrown around the stages that it is impressive how well it all comes together and how it is still able to take itself so seriously. The story also goes has deep enough roots to get invested into and I would expect cult following to latch onto it.

Takeaway

Cyber Shadow takes inspiration from the greatest action platformers of the NES era and lives up its predecessors. The gameplay and level design shine with its enemies and environments interacting brilliantly. Stripped back down to its 8-bit roots this game has no fat and no unnecessary gameplay elements. It gives a lean adventure that is super challenging yet rewarding even for those like me who are not die-hard fans of the NES games it influenced by. The difficulty may put some people off, but it is a gratifying experience for those that tough it out.

I would recommend this game to anyone who doesn’t mind the old-school presentation and rigorous platforming. It comes just short of perfection for me due to the unnecessary difficulty spikes in the late game and some issues with its controls. This game achieves everything that it set out to and it is amazing to see how many great ideas and how much quality can still be squeezed into an 8-bit game.

Pros

Excellent level design

Challenging gameplay

Doesn’t overstay its welcome

Cons

Frustrating controls and difficulty late-game

Retro style is not for everyone

Overall

8/10

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