Ready to explore a world full of monsters, corruption, and…teddy bears? 9 Years of Shadows by Halberd Studios is a vibrant pixel art Metroidvania set in a castle with a long holding curse. It’s up to you to stop the evil beings before they destroy the heart of the castle and spread the curse through the entire world. Gather your weapons, enhance your skills, hug your teddy bear ghost friend for support. Do you have what it takes to save the world from endless darkness?
In 9 Years of Shadows you play as the warrior knight, Europa, who is journeyed with her trusty teddy bear ghost spirit Apino. Together you must explore an immense castle, corrupted by a lurking evil that is trying to expend the world of all color. Throughout your journey you meet members of a traveling band who upgrade your equipment and guide you on your quest. You also meet curious painters that guide their art by channeling the castle’s emotions. Understanding these paintings and defeating the worlds that lurk inside could be the way to solving the puzzle as to why these events are happening.
The impact of 9 Years of Shadows is intense. Such beautiful, vibrant artwork and animation, scintillating synthwave music, and fluid, juicy gameplay. 9 Years of Shadows delights all the senses (except smell, but it’d probably smell the freshest of linen). While currently only for PC, 9 Years of Shadows is best played on a controller. I used my PlayStation 5 controller and had no input problems whatsoever. I want to say this game should be for consoles because it’s the perfect game to take on the go and get immersed into.
Movement and traversal in 9 Years of Shadows is standard for a typical action platformer. Attacking is precise and accurate. Your character doesn’t feel too floaty or too heavy. Everything feels in control. The game requires you to change gear to face different elements in the world, and instantly changes it for you as you traverse. These changes become stacked onto each other and you can find yourself in a flow state as you’re swimming up a waterfall, only to quickly jump through a tunnel, then pop out and float through a maze. There’s no jarring physical movements that stop you in your tracks. The only thing that will give you a pause is taking a second to heal.
The health system in 9 Years of Shadows is interesting and requires a little bit of finesse. You have a kind of shield that recharges when you hit and defeat enemies. You can also use your shield power to shoot projectiles from your teddy bear friend (which you control with your right joystick). The game forces you to use up your shield power to try to hit you when you’re vulnerable. The only times you can regain the shield is when you stop for a few seconds to hug your teddy bear (probably the best part of the game) or if you press the fire button at the right moment as a status bar flicks above you. If you land the status bar correctly, your entire shield amount is replenished, but this can be a tricky task to maneuver if you’re also focused on battling. The balancing of attack styles (projectiles versus close combat) adds a level of puzzle design in 9 Years of Shadows which you don’t normally see in an action platformer.
One design aspect 9 Years of Shadows does well (it does a lot of things well, actually) is teaching the user through gameplay. After exploring the world, you start to recognize patterns in environments and enemies that help you better navigate through it. While it’s not an overly large Metroidvania-style game, it doesn’t overstay its welcome with meandering paths and unrewarding side quests. The only “quests” you do are to help the band of traveling musicians, which means to defeat a few small bosses. These quests naturally fall inline with the main exploration of the game, so you’re never taken off track from your main goal. Completion of bosses and exploring small areas are always rewarded with new armor or resources to upgrade your character.
9 Years of Shadows’ boss design is on a whole other level, the final bosses in particular. If you listened to me while I was playing you would hear an audible “woah” as each boss of emotion clambers into view. They are inventive and unique, requiring you to learn their attack patterns and movements (maybe after the third or fourth time you attempt to battle them you’ll actually decide to pay attention to the patterns). The bosses are also quite tough, and great skill is needed to avoid all their attacks. While you can technically heal at any time, the pacing of some bosses give you no second to spare, so you have to focus on when to use your instant-heal (or just get good and don’t get hurt).
There are a few parts of 9 Years of Shadows that are seemingly lackluster. The most glaring part is the saving. I can understand the want to have the user start from the beginning to perfect their battling skills; starting over does make the boss battles more satisfying when you complete them. However, forgetting to save can be brutal in some moments and utterly annoying the next. Nothing is saved when you restart: No boss animations, no upgrades, not even a coin pickup. This means I had to sit through the same large boss animation multiple times (it was probably the trickiest boss), eating up more of my time. There were some other smaller bosses where I forgot to save afterwards and had to fight them all over again. I feel like it’s unnecessary when games do this, but at least cut me some slack and autosave right after I completed a big boss. The journey back to a save point is the most anxiety-inducing, as dying is the worst thing you could do at that moment (I mean in general, but especially right after a big boss). There were some glitches where the game crashed, but luckily it was right after I saved so it wasn’t too big of a deal. There was also a siren noise that wouldn’t stop playing so I had to restart the game. Note I received a preview copy so it’s more likely than not that these problems have been fixed for release.
The use of vibrant colors in 9 Years of Shadows makes my heart swoon. Every time you open a menu you are greeted with a blast of swirling rainbow. Your character as well as enemies are all outlined in various colors indicating to you elemental types. There is a lot of information given to you by the art. The world has great environmental storytelling, where each location is unique. While there isn’t a wide range of enemies, there doesn’t need to be. Most larger enemies have an elemental variation that is utilized in different ways throughout the maps. The maps are easy to read and understand. I forgot one thing: THE WONDERFUL ANIMATION. As soon as you start up 9 Years of Shadows you are whisked into a fully animated battle. Part of me wishes this was a television show because I could just watch the opening game sequence all day.
To me, the audio in 9 Years of Shadows is what makes this Metroidvania stand out from the rest. Every sound and synth swell is balanced and blends with the atmosphere of the game. The music is fully stacked with synthesizers and a rhythmic percussion that drives the action. 9 Years of Shadows’ music is still stuck in my head as I’m writing and I don’t want it to leave.
In summary: Gameplay that’s smooth and fluid with a layer of difficulty that adds as a fun challenge. Expertly crafted areas that teach the player over time and makes each visit a delight. Gorgeous art with little to no imperfections, and audio that is both pleasing to the ears and fits within the game.
Jordan played 9 Years of Shadows on PC with a key provided by the publisher.