Retro-inspired game can go one of two ways, it seems. They either pay worthy tribute to those that paved the way, or they can be cheap imitators looking to make a quick buck based on our nostalgia. But if there were any doubts that Cyber Shadow falls into the latter, they are certainly laid to rest quite early on.
You see, ninjas and robots are already a cool combination. Writing them into a modern and compelling narrative can be tough, granted. But when you’re aping an era of gaming with fantastical storylines to appeal to kids? You can’t go wrong with that.
Having already struck gold with Shovel Knight, publisher Yacht Club Games have teamed up with Mechanical Head Studios to strike a similar vein with this offering. Does it work? Well, of course it does, it’s friggin’ ninjas and robots. But in the art of y’know, actually writing a review, let’s find out a bit more as to why it does.
Out of the Shadows
The plot of Cyber Shadow isn’t revolutionary, not even by a long shot. It’s not going for the emotional engagement of The Last of Us or Spider-Man, which is good. It doesn’t need to have an epic arc for it to be enjoyable.
The world was once on the brink of technological advancement, led by Dr. Progen and his work in robotics. Things seemed rosy for a while, until Dr. Progen gets too big for his boots and begins taking over the world with his robotic armies. You, Shadow, are the last of your ninja clan. Once protectors of Mekacity, a blast wipes out most of the population… including you. Fortunately, you are somewhat reincarnated into a robotic body, hence Cyber Shadow.
The souls of your former clan are trapped in the bosses that Progen has made, it being your mission to free them and stop the evil doctor behind it all. That’s literally it, as far as story and encompassing mission go. You’re aided by a little robot named L-gion, who acts as convenient exposition device when required. It’s not a twisting and shocking narrative by any means, but it’s enjoyable enough as it fits a game like this.
Each freed soul fills you in on what you’ve missed during your absence in suspended animation/reincarnation, but that’s not all they offer…
At the start of your adventure, you have a sword and your wits about you. Power-ups are sparse and don’t really account to much in the earlier stages. Having a lengthened blade that’s linked to your health bar (in that it’ll disappear after you’ve been hit a few times) is cool, but it’s not the meat of the unlockables.
No, these come from the bosses. Much like Capcom’s series that I cleverly alluded to in the heading above, defeating the one-of-a-kind, end level fiend will net you a new ability. They start off relatively simple, such as throwable shurikens and a flaming sword vertical slash, adding more versatility to combat.
Over time, you add more traversal moves to your cyber-arsenal, including dashes, wall jumps and other sweet-ass ninja moves you’d expect. It plays, in essence, very similar to The Messenger: you start with nothing, by the end you’re running and jumping parallel to your Ryu Hayabusa’s and Joe Musashi’s effortlessly.
The only difference with The Messenger and this, though, is that the former is certainly more forgiving.
Training in Cyber
Make no bones about it, Cyber Shadow is hard. And I don’t mean that in a cutesy, “I probably suck at it but I’m trying” way, no sir. We’re talking Cuphead and later levels of Huntdown hard.
Precision-perfect platforming is the tallest order here, requiring you to watch your footing in a lot of missions. Deathtraps quite literally litter the levels, and let me tell you, there is nothing more annoying that being a shuriken’s throw away from a checkpoint and falling into one. At least, the first time it’s annoying. By the fifth time you want to chew your controller in half.
Following behind platforming is the enemy difficulty. Now, even in the older days we’re used to enemies on different plains and heights, that’s fine. However, some presumed genius decided at some point that the best way to test Shadow’s combat skills is to have baddies fly at him. Which would be fine, if you could attack in different directions. However, you can’t. Outside of your abilities, you can only slash left or right at head height. There’s no crouch-slashing here, nor is the parry available for quite some time.
So when an erratically flying enemy hits you from a top-left angle, thereby knocking you into a trap, you’re within your right to call bullshit at Cyber Shadow.
You Asked For It…
I shouldn’t complain though. This is what comes with the territory of mimicking older games: they were hard too. You only need recall the NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ underwater level, or Battletoads’ infamous Turbo Tunnel for vintage examples. But of course, they were borne of an era where home consoles tried to ape the arcade model of being difficult to put more money into them.
One could argue that Cyber Shadow doesn’t need to be as hard as it is, but the response would be, “Where’s the fun then?”. That it has a challenge is what makes it worth putting the time into getting better. Were you able to breeze through it, it wouldn’t hold any value.
The other benefit is that it does have elements of Metroidvania to it. Not in the broadest sense, as the game has a fairly linear mission/level structure to it. Yet the start of each level allows you to warp to a previous one, so when you’re better kitted out you’re free to go and explore. There’s no penalty for not doing so.
It’s a testament to the old style of games that Mechanical Head have replicated well, with modern trimmings like parallax backgrounds and a varied colour palette that makes it stand out. Even if it is bastard hard.
Who Hasn’t Ever Dreamed of Being a Ninja?
In fact, it’s the juxtaposition in the cutscenes and gameplay that makes Cyber Shadow stand out to me. Look at the picture above and then look at a gameplay model of Shadow from an earlier picture. They look barely alike.
Yet to me, that invokes the magic of imagination I use to get from reading instruction manuals and seeing game artwork in magazines. You see these awesome, badass characters in detail, yet when you play the game you’re effectively controlling a potato with extremities. But in your mind, you’re steering the avatar you saw in print, or in the opening video, and that is what makes Cyber Shadow cool.
It invokes that old school sensibility and use of creative artwork, much like Huntdown did, to rekindle an era of gaming that we all loved. Playing this reminds me of Probotector, of Alien Storm, of all those cool looking dudes that a young me would fantasize about being able to play as.
Naysayers will argue that this type of game doesn’t belong anymore, considering how we’re always pushing for new and better graphics. Whereas I, someone who loves this kind of tribute, thinks they have their standing alongside them. Look at what Hotline Miami or indeed Cuphead did for “old school” aesthetics. Cyber Shadow is worthy of rubbing shoulders with them.
Twitchy Fingers At The Ready
It’s definitely going to be a positive recommendation from me about Cyber Shadow. When we were offered it at FGHQ, I made sure I looked at the trailer first. That alone was enough to make me want it, and the game itself hasn’t disappointed in the slightest.
Yes, it is difficult. It will only get better over time if you are willing to put the time into it. That it is difficult is only out of love for the genre of older platformer it’s paying homage to. There will be moments where you cry bullshit at being knocked off of something or mistiming a jump. There are enemies that hit harder than they need to, much to your annoyance.
The game doesn’t pull punches, instead rewarding the challenges met under the Feats section of the pause menu. It’s unapologetic and that’s what I love about it. That doesn’t mean every death is my fault, because sometimes it is absolute bullshit. But it doesn’t stop me from attempting it another dozen times.
Yacht Club fans will see the magic in this from Shovel Knight, whereas those unfamiliar should see this for its old school magic. It’s as brutal as training to be an actual ninja would be, but I can’t help but love it. It just reminds me of Shinobi, Alien Soldier and a golden age of gaming before being an adult took over.
It’s absolutely nails to begin with, but stick with Cyber Shadow and it will be your new favourite platformer. There will be tantrums and swearwords, but when a game looks this cool you can’t stay mad at it.
Cyber Shadow is available now on Xbox (reviewed on), PlayStation 4/5, Nintendo Switch and PC.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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