Going into 9 Years of Shadows, I didn’t know what to expect from the game as the Metroidvania genre in the indie space isn’t one I’ve paid too much attention to lately as far as playing them but I’m aware that there is a dime and a dozen of games to dive into. For the most part, I came out positive as 9 Years of Shadows does a good job setting itself apart from the pack while specifically honouring the “Metroid” and “vania” of the genre’s namesake but not so much it’s in your face. Every choice in its design is only enhanced by this decision rather than the sake of wearing that inspiration on its sleeve like “hey we did the thing” but is also a fresh new take on the genre
I’m very high on the content of 9 Years of Shadows as it presented a satisfying and smooth gameplay experience at a no-choice difficulty that was at times brutal in boss fights. Early on I was frustrated by 9 Years of Shadows but over time I understood the developer’s intention with this approach as it gave the player room to grow and learn the movements to tackle the game in a more tactical approach that honestly left me very satisfied as each fight in a way felt like its own puzzle in a way. I think overall, 9 Years of Shadows is a great game that is truly a blast that I can tell developer Halberd Studios put their very souls into.
9 Years of Shadows Is Great But It’s Buggy
There is a ‘but’ to my praises of 9 Years of Shadows though as I played the game both on my PC and Steam Deck where I dealt with 10+ instances where the game either crashed the system altogether or froze the game from progressing – really the first time as no other non-verified Steam Deck game has given me this much trouble running. This led to a lot of one and off again restarts during my playthrough and at times unplayable colour bar screens that I was thankfully able to overcome but still, I was plagued with so many random freezes that would pop up, losing some progress in the process which pushed me to save constantly in the game’s many Metroid-like save rooms.
This experience brought down my enjoyment of 9 Years of Shadows as it reiterates that the game was not optimized very well for the platform during my time with it anyway. Now 9 Years of Shadows is a great game and so much more but the sorry state of the game on the technical side is unforgivable. It clearly showed that the team behind the game needed some extra development to get over this hump of these game-breaking issues could leave players more frustrated than anything. There were moments I said to myself “what’s the point” but I wanted to power through to have a true full opinion on the unexpectedly wholesome ending of 9 Years of Shadows.
Talos Castle Colour Out
Speaking of which, the story of 9 Years of Shadows takes place in Talos Castle which is a longstanding orphanage that has been abandoned following an apocalyptic event. Nine years ago at this very location, a spell was cast and a Reaper-like creature curses the land which robs the 9 Years of Shadows‘ world of its very colour leaving every living creature, the environment, and everything else that exists in a bland dark cursed world. Over the years, many warriors have entered Talos Castle to tackle the creature to bring back the light but none have succeeded well not until now anyway.
This is when the game’s protagonist enters the scene, she is Europa who is a young red-headed woman with an eyepatch covering her left eye who comes alone wielding her trusty golden halberd. Talos Castle is actually her old stomping grounds, yes she use to live here in the orphanage so she is very familiar with the interior of the huge tower-like building which does lead to much after an unsuccessful run-in aka Europa running away back to where she started. It’s here that Europa meets Apino, a floating teddy bear possessed by a spirit that hasn’t moved on,
Colour Comes Back… Kind of
With Apinio’s help, the colour begins to come back to the world temporarily for as long as they are by your side at least and will help you explore the rest of the map to find new gear and abilities like in every Metroidvania. Throughout 9 Years of Shadows, you’ll face obstacles that will stop the player from progressing which you can easily overcome thanks to the smartly placed new abilities to discover. As well as four new Saint Seiya Gold-like suits to collect after a tough boss battle, these suits include Zeus, Poseidon, Gaia, and Helios. Each suit is connected to one of the elements which help Europa bypass water, poison, and heat-based areas littered throughout the map.
Those suits also gain unique abilities that will be key in the final boss like turning into a mermaid to swim up around in the water or dashing to actually waterfalls, zipping through the underground in Metroid ball-like openings, and using hot air to glide down or up obstacles. While the game has an interesting and emotional narrative, it wasn’t something I paid too much attention to as the story was mostly used to get Europa to the next beat but not in a way. Only in the final act is when my feeling on the game really changed when Europa came into her own as she acknowledges her own insecurities and mortality of why she came back to Talos Castle
Roll Some Dice to Get Your Health Back
With 9 Years of Shadows being much more of a fantasy setting fights mostly utilize close combat with light and heavy attacks but there is some long-range variety with Apino at your side as they are able to shoot light energy through a ‘Lullaby’ attack which is at your command; comes at a price though. The unique thing about 9 Years of Shadows is that developer decided to combine health and magic into one bar so using Apinio’s light attack will literally cost your health and vice versa losing health will leave less magic to use in battle. It’s honestly a unique approach I haven’t seen before at least in recent memory but to make up for this when you hit zero, there is a chance to regain all your health back if you’re lucky.
During that moment at your lowest, a small bar will pop up near your character with a slider going up it if you hit the right trigger at the right moment when the slider is in a select green area you will regain your health. If you miss it’s not the end of the world as you can hold the right trigger to hug Apino to gain somewhere around 60 percent of your health – it’s not the full amount but hey at least it’s something. Even if you do run out of health, the game features a unique approach to multiple health bars (that start at zero) presented as red gems at the bottom of your screen meaning when you lose all of them it’s game over. You upgrade your health by collecting blue and red musical notes (plus at the cost of some in-game currency) to upgrade the size of your health and to give you at max two more red gems (four in total).
Change up Your Combo Style by Switching Suits
Talking about your armours for a bit, the variety really mixes combat as each set has its own unique cool spin on your halberd combos, each heavy attack is different depending on what armour you have equipped which you can switch on the fly on the bumper buttons. Throughout your journey, you will be able to collect material that allows you to enhance the stats of your armour, and knowing how much 9 Years of Shadows’ bosses don’t clown around these upgrades seriously help.
You can go through the motion of upgrading through the theatre which can be found in each of the eight sectors in 9 Years of Shadows’ main map in the pause menu which is where the orchestra hang and also serve as quest givers and also the ones who help fill out your Beastry guide and allocating extra items to the player. 9 Years of Shadows is a visually beautiful game that keeps true to its past with a distinct and smooth pixelated art style that looks awesome in motion but there are moments with 3D/CG animation that looks good too even if it doesn’t overstay its welcome too long.
To complement the 9 Years of Shadows‘ anime character art style, especially the game’s fantastic Sailor Moon-esque opening the art really does a great job portraying the emotion in cutscenes. As well as the game’s elevator moments where Europa internally monologues to herself which is a reference to similar moments to the more recent mainline Metroid titles. 9 Years of Shadows also doesn’t get enough credit as it plays a huge role both narratively and in gameplay thanks to its duo composers –Michiru Yamane (Castlevania) and Norihiko Hibino (Metal Gear Solid) which was such a pleasure listening to during my 10+ hour playthrough.
9 Years of Shadows is one of the better indie Metroidvania games out this year. It really strives to give players a really good story with even better gameplay reminiscent of the Saint Seiya-like armours. It’s also something fans of the genre should pick up once the developers alleviate the bugs that plague the launch.
While not a perfect game, 9 Years of Shadows has PC optimization issues and game-crashing problems that at times were a not-so-enjoyable roadblock, often leading to frustrating bouts of reloading and completing boss battles again and again. I think beneath that frustration is a truly fantastic game that I feel should be given a chance. Hopefully, these issues won’t pop up in the upcoming summer release on Switch.
[A copy of the game was provided to us by the publisher for review purposes.]
Reviewed on: PC