Indie games that are developed by one person tend to shine in the spotlight. Think Fez, Stardew Valley, Axiom Verge, and Undertale.
That's partially what makes Cyber Shadow so impressive — a 2D action platformer developed by Aarne Hunziker, better known as MekaSkull or Mechanical Head Studios. This is Yacht Club Games' latest venture as a publisher, and — much like Shovel Knight before it, Cyber Shadow is mostly a high-quality product but is full of frustrating moments.
Review: Cyber Shadow Frustrates as Much as It Satisfies
Cyber Shadow is a callback to beloved 2D NES games, with a beautiful pixel art style, catchy chiptune music, and action platforming that mostly works well. It's a game that clearly wears its inspirations on its sleeve, harkening back to Shadow of the Ninja, the NES version of Batman, and Ninja Gaiden. If you've played Shovel Knight before, you'll at least know what to expect with its moment-to-moment gameplay, which consists of platforming, attacking enemies, exploring various levels, and unlocking power-ups to enhance your ninja.
What's really fascinating is how the game's story is told through cinematic cutscenes, just like the original Ninja Gaiden. In fact, the visuals during these cinematics are one of the game's standout features, giving you a well-rounded and complete package that focuses on narrative along with its gameplay. Though the story isn't anything to write home about — but that's probably not why you'd want to play Cyber Shadow anyway. No, instead, Cyber Shadow puts gameplay first, and it shows.
When you start, you don't have much to work with. Still, as you explore and complete levels, your character — a ninja — gains new abilities that make it easier to defeat tougher enemies or reach inaccessible areas. With this in mind, it very much feels like a Metroidvania, which is an excellent addition when done right. This gives you many reasons to revisit older levels, with “aha!” moments sinking in after unlocking a new power-up.
Sprinkled throughout each level are save points that allow you to buy temporary items to help you out. These items include HP regenerators, shields, a ranged attack that shoots when you strike with your sword, and others. The currency used to buy these items is dropped by defeating enemies or found in crates, meaning you'll want to be as proactive as possible when exploring and battling your foes. This incentivizes you to be thorough during battle and exploration since these special items put you at a massive advantage.
This is just one of Cyber Shadow nails' many things, giving you lots of varied levels to explore and navigate through. Some levels take place in robot-filled labs, others send you outside at night, while some sections comprise dream-like sequences that help give the game variation. Because of this, you'll likely never get bored of looking at the game's gorgeous levels. Shoutout to Hunziker's 2D art skills because it's quite stunning. And we'd be remiss if we didn't praise the game's music, composed by Enrique Martin and Jake Kaufman. You'll die a lot in this game, so it's a good thing the music never gets old.
In addition to HP, your character has SP, which serves as the “ammo” for your special abilities. These abilities consist of throwing shurikens, a downward slash attack (like in Shovel Knight), or a powerful upward strike to take out enemies above you — among others. These moves offer a breadth of different ways to tackle many of the game's swarms of enemies and light puzzles. Though you run out of SP, there is almost always a way to get through with your melee weapon alone.
As you might expect, the game introduces a mechanic — like the ability to throw shurikens, for example — and then encourages you to use it by sending flying enemies at you or puzzles that are easily solved by throwing shurikens. This idea is repeated over and over and is satisfying. By the end of the game, you'll be running, dashing, double jumping, downward slashing, throwing shurikens, and wall sliding — all in one fell swoop.
And once you get to the bosses, there are usually a couple of combinations of moves/abilities you can use to defeat them in addition to your sword. This makes each boss almost feel like puzzles in and of themselves, which helps break up the fast-paced gameplay throughout the stages.
Cyber Shadow is not without its faults, though. If you grew up with the NES or are a fan of challenging platformers, you'll feel right at home with Cyber Shadow. Though you want a 2D action platformer you can breeze through; you probably won't find that here. In many cases, the difficulty in Cyber Shadow is fair and a result of smart design, but it becomes more frustrating than fun towards the latter stages.
This is due to many reasons, but the biggest problem is the timing of the button inputs required for executing special abilities. Many abilities force you to press multiple buttons sequentially, which is difficult in the heat of battle. It doesn't help that the inputs seem to be touchy, much like a fighting game, wherein the timing is strict. During our playthrough, we often died while fighting with the button combinations' timing — just trying to properly do what the game wanted to unleash a certain move.
For example, there is a dashing attack that allows you to teleport through enemies to reach areas quickly. It's a useful move that damages your foes and allows you to get out of a bind — when it works. To trigger it, you must first sprint (which is done by pressing the d-pad twice, quickly), followed by an attack. But there are particular instances in which this move works. You can't do it after jumping (since you need to sprint to trigger it), and you can't do it if you don't have enough ground to run across first. The point is that a lot of the “challenge” is due to strict button input requirements, which feels like an artificial way to make a game more difficult.
Using many of the game's abilities falls into this category, wherein we got stuck, simply because it was tough to nail the exact timing to unleash a certain attack. Imagine fast, overwhelming sections full of enemies that can attack you from afar or one-hit-kill you — all while trying to match the precise timing to get an ability to work. It's frustrating and could easily be mitigated with a much simpler control scheme (why not just press and hold R2 to sprint instead of double-tapping on the d-pad?). The fewer buttons needed to do something, the better.
To make matters worse, a handful of the harder platforming sections often only have one way of tackling them — requiring you to be pinpoint accurate with your jumping and attacking. Again, this might be what you're looking for, but for many players, it leaves little to no room for error — especially with sections that feature traps that kill you in one hit. When you mix this with the difficulty of using certain abilities, along with checkpoints that often feel like they're too spread out, it will likely make you want to pull your hair out.
Challenge is welcome, especially in a game like this, but some sections feel hard because of bad design, not because of smart enemy placement or well-placed platforms. This issue isn't present throughout the entire game, but numerous levels included segments that slowed progress due to forcing the player to use an ability that didn't often work. Ideally, button inputs should be responsive and intuitive, and at the very least, there should be multiple ways to get through each section.
Although the aforementioned problem wasn't always present, the times it did occur was enough to damper our overall experience. Many NES purists will likely find this game to be exactly what they're looking for, but many of the things that make it challenging are due to outdated mechanics that don't hold up in a modern context. It can be an NES callback while still feeling modern.
When Cyber Shadow works, it's superb. After completing a tough area flawlessly while using various abilities one after the other, the feeling of satisfaction is high — but sadly, these moments didn't happen as often as we'd like. Other sections, like the one that puts you in control of a mech, feels like it's too short-lived. In particular, the mech part was the highlight of the entire game, giving you infinite ranged attacks to take out all the enemies that have been giving you a hard time thus far. It was cathartic. And just when the excitement of stomping through enemies set in, it was over.
Cyber Shadow is great at giving you exciting and memorable moments that are sometimes overshadowed by frustration. It needs a few tweaks to nail what it's trying to do effectively. There is something exceptional here, and with a few changes, it could be a stand-out 2D action platformer. It's a shame it requires so much concentration and focus to master. As it stands, the game asks way too much of you, and the payoff usually isn't worth it.