9 Years of Shadows is a 2D Metroidvania with some heavy anime influences, it was funded through Kickstarter and is set to release on the 27th of March, 2023, but we got an early look.
The game starts off completely in black and white, as we are told that the world has been engulfed in shadow for nearly a decade.
The main character, Europa, is one of the remaining humans who fights against the shadows, and for the last nine years she has set her sights on Talos, the castle that the shadows emanate from.
9 Years of Shadows
Publisher: Freedom Games
Developer: Halberd Studios
Platform: Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows (reviewed)
Release Date: March 27th, 2023
Price: Not announced yet
Europa makes the arduous trek to the castle, only to find out that she isn’t strong enough to defeat the creatures inside, and is brought to the brink of death by a massive shadow. Thankfully, she is saved by a spirit teddy bear named Apino, who protects Europa and serves as an emotional crutch at the same time.
Apino gives Europa a shield that serves as a health bar, but it can also be spent on projectiles, which are needed to open passages and can also be used to defeat enemies. This is a pretty interesting system that allows the player to gamble their life away in exchange for more damage, until you meet a ghost lady.
The ghost gives you the power to replenish your life bar completely after its emptied, as long as you time your inputs correctly. This is given to the player right at the beginning of the game, and trivializes the entire experience. Keep in mind the player can also hug Apino to restore half of their health bar, but this system allows you to get a full bar and skips the long animation.
games like Azure Striker Gunvolt are comfortable in giving the player a shield because they are teeth-grinding difficult. The player is required to have really good mechanical execution and pattern recognition skills for the boss fights, none of which are required in 9 Years of Shadows.
The timing for replenishing your health does get tighter after a few uses, but the player can still get their life back comfortably two or three times. Sometimes a boss will catch you off-guard, but it won’t happen more than once, as they all have really easy patterns.
This makes 9 Years of Shadows a game where damage values aren’t high, but health is basically infinite, which makes every boss fight drag on without offering a challenge.
Europa can be hit twice with her shield down before truly dying, so on top of the almost infinite shield, you are also allowed two mistakes for good measure.
Enemies are also not that big of a threat, as Europa can just shoot at them from a distance basically for free, with only a few being immune to your shots.
Halberd Studios has a pretty good sense of style, it’s really interesting to see the Kickstarter page’s art and correlate it to how the game ended up looking. The art started out looking similar to something you would see in Symphony of the Nightbut eventually ended up becoming its own thing.
This doesn’t mean that the game ditched its influences completely. Europa runs just like Alucard, because it’s mandatory for every metroidvania protagonist to do so.
Europa, sadly, doesn’t have the mechanical depth that Alucard has. Her bread and butter in combat is mostly spamming a 3-hit combo followed up by a heavy attack.
Her different armors all represent different elements, but they are all nearly identical when it comes to attacking, and switching mostly serves to navigate hazards or open passages.
Most enemies in the game have an outline around them that determines their element, and you can choose to match the color to deal more damage to the enemy. This system also applies to switches and generators, you generally want to match the outline of whatever you are hitting.
This system is surely in the game and it exists, and that’s pretty much all I can say about it, because it doesn’t seem to ever get used creatively, I literally have nothing to say about it aside from “Yeah, it’s there” .
Two of the game’s ‘s Kickstarter goals were related to music, and I can safely say that backers will get their money’s worth when it comes to the soundtrack.
The game’s orchestral soundtrack is fantastic, and a good chunk of the NPCs you find in the game are members of a band that got scattered around the castle. You will usually find them playing their own track by themselves, and they all play together when joined at the theater.
9 Years of Shadows also seems to take a lot of influence from anime, the introduction sequence has Europa going through a magical girl transformation to the Sailor Moonand the armor designs seem to be heavily influenced by Saint Seiya.
The armors are all named after Greek gods as well, and some of the design choices are pretty easy to correlate to their anime counterparts.
I immediately spotted the design choices in the introduction, especially since Europa looks like Saint Seiya‘s Athena in her base armor, but it still felt incredibly out of left field that a game would go out of its way to make a reference that few would notice.
When I checked the game’s Kickstarter page it all made sense, Halberd Studios is from Guadalajara, Mexico. Saint Seiya was almost completely ignored in North America, but Latin America has a massive fascination with it, myself included.
Saint Seiya is deeply ingrained into every Latin American’s brain, and the series is still celebrated by many despite being unpopular in the rest of the world.
The protagonist’s usage of a halberd seems ingrained with the game, as the earliest screenshots have Europa holding her golden halberd. It’s a somewhat unconventional weapon, but it fits perfectly with Europa’s design.
The weapon looks like an extension of her armor, and accentuates Europa as much as she accentuates the weapon with her flourishes and elaborate swings.
I really like halberds, and it’s a shame that they only get a chance to shine in the souls series, so I’m glad to see the weapon get some more representation.
We get a glimpse into Europa’s thoughts when we board an elevator, and this helps showcase her complicated feelings about the castle and her journey, as well as give her some backstory.
Europa’s internal monologue is written really well, and never really feels like she’s “YIIK-ing” at us, she is likeable and her doubts and fears are very valid, but they are also kept reasonably short to not disrupt the flow of gameplay
The game’s map starts out really interconnected, but eventually starts making use of elevators more and more, the map also just lies to you at points, for some reason. Depending on your location, the map may completely forget that you visited some rooms, and may also just make up fake room connections.
My only explanation for this system is that the map generates on the go as you move through the castle and doesn’t have a set design, as it would have to be remade if the developers wanted to move rooms around. This leads to some buggy map generation that sometimes shows you a connection that isn’t there, or forgets you visited some rooms.
This is only a theory, as I’m not a game developer, but it’s the only way I can find to explain this completely nonsensical happening.
Some of the map parts aren’t connected at all, as they reside inside paintings. These painting sections give us new transformation skills, which are pretty much useless in combat. The transformations have no practical usage outside of puzzles and reaching new rooms, but the painting sections are well-designed and enjoyable, if a bit gimmicky.
When you first get the Poseidon armor it feels like getting a new armor piece on Mega Man Xa visible symbol of your progress that also gives you some cool power.
Upon finding out that all armors functioned mostly the same aside from different animations and being able to solve different puzzles, it got way less exciting. You can also enhance your armor by finding fragments, which makes their glow stronger and gives you extra damage, but I’m pretty indifferent towards those.
Boss fights are a mixed bag, most of them are visually beautiful and mechanically mediocre, with the bosses for the musician side quests being some of the worst offenders. The bosses for these quests mostly just jump around or hover while throwing their weapons at you for the entire fight, which leads to some tedious gameplay.
I was initially hooked by 9 Years of Shadows, and I still have nothing negative to say about the game’s music or visuals, but then I realized that the game didn’t have anything interesting to show me after the Poseidon armor. The predictable level structure, meaningless upgrades, uninteresting enemies, mechanically boring boss fights, and stale combat make it a repetitive slog to go through.
9 Years of Shadows was reviewed on Microsoft Windows using a game code provided by Freedom Games, You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here. 9 Years of Shadows is set to release on the 27th of March, 2023, for the Nintendo Switch and Microsoft Windows (through Steam).