As many of you readers know, I love myself a good metroidvania. Love exploring interconnected worlds with secrets to uncover, the satisfying character progression as their list of abilities grows, difficulty and how challenge ramps up to match the player character’s power, etc. These are the types of games I think are the hardest to make, because it takes a lot of thought and care to make a great one. Screw up one of the key aspects that makes a great metroidvania and the whole thing falls apart. However, I’m a sucker for these games and even the weaker ones manage to leave me satisfied. 2023 has been a fantastic year for video games and indie games especially, and one I’ve been meaning to play since released was 9 Years of Shadows. A colorful pixel art metroidvania developed by indie studio Halberd Studios. Which is a pretty cool name for your team since your first game’s protagonist wields a golden halberd. Awesome, just awesome. Anyways, the game started out as a Kickstarter project in 2020 and the team’s main goal was to create a throwback metroidvania similar to that of older Castlevania titles. They managed to reach their fundraising goal, but making their game proved to be difficult. For one there was covid. I mean that’s pretty obvious whenever the numbers “2020” are brought up. Second reason being that from what they showed off on the Kickstarter page there wasn’t much separating 9 Years of Shadows off from other metroidvania competitors like Blasphemous and all that came before.
Not only was the game delayed quite a few times, but the studio had to rework a lot of aspects. Core one being the pixel art and animation, which looked really rough from what they started out with. The team put a lot of life into making 9 Years of Shadows stand out, and it really goes to show as if you compare the Kickstarter screenshots which you can still find to the final release you can see a huge jump in quality. The pixel art, color, and animation is going to be the reason why a ton of people are going to play this game. It is some of the best pixel work I have all this year besides Blasphemous 2 and just in general. Halberd Studios also promised an engaging tale full of unique characters and depth, an orchestrated soundtrack, and another one of the selling features being the armor mechanic. Swapping between four sets of armor each with their own traits, and using said armor to solve a variety of puzzles and take advantage of weaknesses. They weren’t planning on making a huge game since covid and time put on the pixel art was putting a toll on them, but they wanted to do the best with what they had. 9 Years of Shadows came out earlier this year and while there were a small handful of technical issues the game overall was received pretty well. Being considered one of the many gems of 2023, and a great start off for Halberd Studios’ first outing. As a matter of fact they just announced their next game a couple of weeks back. Mariachi Legends, which is aiming to be another gorgeous pixel art metroidvania now inspired by Spanish culture and celebration. With Mariachi Legends quickly becoming a well anticipated indie title I thought it would be the perfect time to play 9 Years of Shadows.
So I spent the last week playing the game and doing everything it had to offer. Scoured the map for almost every upgrade available, beat the final boss, and managed to do so within six to seven hours of playtime. Again, not a very long game, but one that left a very strong impression on me. This is a good game. Great game even! One of the best I’ve played this year and easily sitting on my game of the year list. It’s not the best metroidvania of 2023, that being Blasphemous 2, but it is so well designed and addicting that it deserves a shoutout. 9 Years of Shadows is brilliant, and while does have a few flaws some of which may case players off from checking it out I think it’s a must play. It should earn the acclaim for being another one of the genre’s greats. Today we're talking about 9 Years of Shadows and why it deserves your attention.
The story follows Europa, a young woman who grew up in a cold, dark, and unforgiving world. It was a world once full of color and life, but one day a mysterious curse came out of nowhere and began ravaging the land. Killing civilians by the dozen, but the curse also removed all of the color in the world. No one ever got to see what the world actually looks like ever again, and all that remained was different shades of gray and white. The curse has been around for nine whole years, and during that time Europa’s parents died. She was tossed out into the streets to fend for herself, and she had to work really hard just to survive in life. She trained day and night until she was able to effectively wield a halberd, and she took on dangerous jobs just so she could afford better equipment and put food on the table. The training and struggling all led to one moment. To storm the stronghold for which the curse originally came from. You see, there existed a mystical castle in the middle of the land. Made up of glistening crystals, containing royal hallways and gems within, and hundreds of monsters. Some have ventured into the castle hoping to purge the curse once and for all, and some ventured in to either find treasure or deeper secrets of the world. None of which have returned due to the monsters and corruption slowly taking over their minds.
Europa didn’t want to end up like all those who came before, so that’s why she trained night and day before entering. Europa slashes her way into the castle and is able to make quick work of the monsters that try to stop her. However, she comes face to face with a powerful demon. Wielding a ginormous scythe and teleporting around the arena. Europa does all she can to bring the demon down, but she is quickly killed. All that time struggling to hopefully avenge her parents was all for nothing. Hours pass and Europa lays slowly dying on the floor. Europa is then resurrected by a magical floating teddy bear. It gives Europa its magical powers and the ability to see color. The world which was once drab and gray is now brought to life, and Europa now has help in getting her goal. Along the way she meets musicians which journeyed into the tower, and magic armor which was left behind by the gods of the world. This armor bestowed her grants her protection, strength, and the fighting power she needs to take down the demons standing in her wake. She will also run into an old friend and several other adventurers who journeyed in to forge an epic destiny for themselves. Europa is just gonna have to explore, uncover new powers, and eventually defeat the evil lying within.
It’s a metroidvania, so you should know what to expect by now. Explore an interconnected world full of secrets, fight enemies, pick up character upgrades, and try to get to your goal. One of the core mechanics for this game are the four sets of armor you can swap between. The first one is your basic gown and early in the game you gain a lightning buff from Zeus. Yes, Zeus the king of the gods and god of thunder. Then you will obtain Poseidon’s armor which gives you a thrust attack, maneuver easily through water, and soon enough transform into a mermaid. This allows you to swim around easily in water and even jump long distances. Gaia’s armor gives you the ability to breathe in poisonous areas and traverse through green pipes. Finally, Helios’ armor allows you to not take damage in super hot areas, hover over steaming vents, and burst jump as long as you are touching a hot object. You are gonna want to switch between armor often as most platforming challenges combine mechanics like pipe traversal, bodies of water, heat vents, and much more. That and the combat forces you to make use of elemental weaknesses. Not all foes can be hit with any attack. Some of them have colored armor and either take reduced damage or negate damage all together. So you have to hit them with one of your four colored attacks. Some enemies don’t have elemental defense, but you can deal bonus damage for using the right color.
There are dozens of secrets and optional challenges to find throughout the world, and one of the main things you’ll be picking up are music notes. There are the red ones and blue ones. Red will upgrade your maximum health if enough are gained, and blue will increase your magic meter. This brings us onto the next unique mechanic which is how health and defense work. The teddy bear companion you get at the beginning of the game shoots magical projectiles. Sometimes you will have to use this to kill certain foes and trigger certain devices, but these projectiles use up a bit of magic. Your magic meter is also your defense bar. Every time you use a spell or take a hit this meter goes down. You can refill it by striking foes, killing them, playing this timing game for when you take a hit that properly drains it, or if you are completely empty you can take time to hug the teddy bear to restore a huge chunk. Last one leaves you open for attack, and you do not want to get hit when your defense/magic bar is out. You have your main health bar which is made up of hit points, and when those hit points are gone it’s game over. You lose any progress made since your last save room and you do not want to do all of it again. In some ways the game forces you to play carefully, but in other cases aggressively as keeping the pressure on foes and getting good quickly allows you to keep your magic/defense meter up. Great design once you get used to it. Along your travels you’ll encounter bosses and there are a lot of them. Some require you to utilize skills you gained, and others will be a test of endurance. Understand their attack patterns and surely you will bring them down. Last things I should mention are armor fragments which can increase the attack power of different armor sets. Always be on the lookout for these as they can help make future fights a tad bit easier. Besides that there is nothing much else for me to say. Hopefully you can kill the ruler of this accursed fortress and save the once great world.
9 Years of Shadows is a masterpiece although a pretty flawed one. It has a couple of hiccups here and there, but everything it strives for is well designed, well executed, and helps make up for all those downsides. The world design is great and I never found myself getting lost during my six to seven hour long adventure. Whenever I gained a new power I knew exactly where to go to use it. Green armor provides resistance against poison? Take it to the room glowing with pink fungal matter, and if you try to enter it without the green armor you take damage quickly. In fact, a lot of objects that can only be interacted with using specific armor types and abilities are often color coated to that armor. Which makes identifying new pathways you can take and know what to do before charging it much easier. Traversing the world is fun and even though there are not a lot of fast travel spots I didn’t mind it. I’m used to backtracking in video games so I don’t really care how many times I head back to a core location.
I like the weakness system and how often it makes me switch between my four armor sets. Now some people might not like this system, because it means certain fights force you to use specific gear and abilities. I like it because it forces you to master your tools and switch up your approach on the fly. In fact, the Guacamelee series did something like this too. Certain foes in that game could only damage using certain attacks or switching between worlds. It not only made combat more challenging, but it got the player to play actively. 9 Years of Shadows doesn’t do it as well, but it’s still pretty well handled. I also like the defense system and how that encourages an active playstyle. Stay aggressive to refill magic, and use magic to dish out powerful projectile attacks. Do this over and over and it'll help make fights easier. I will also say some people might not like this. It makes combat a bit button mashy as you hack away a foe to refill the bar that keeps you alive. That and it’s very inconsistent how much an enemy attack will drain. Some will only do a little and then others will completely annihilate it. The first hour or so is probably the hardest in the game, because you are coming to terms with how 9 Years of Shadows works. In fact, I did not know you could refill magic by hugging the teddy bear until after the serpent boss. That fight was hard because I had little to no room for error and you need magic for the last phase.
Still, once you get into the combat and how the mechanics work it’s really fun. Boss fights are definitely a huge highlight for this game as the spectacle and presentation make them exciting. I loved almost every fight in this game besides the final boss. Everything throughout the game is decently paced, but the final boss feels like it’s on crack. It’s pure bullsh*t. He has four phases, a large handful of attacks, and you want to have all your health points for the last phase because he just shoots lasers everywhere like a bullet-hell boss. Something that was not suited for the type of game this is. I wouldn’t be surprised if people gave up right at the end. Exploration feels well rewarded with music notes lying around to upgrade your stats, and musicians you can assemble for an epic play. Never managed to find the last one, but I’m pretty sure you can find them all easily. Pixel art I don’t really have to explain much about. It’s gorgeous and some of the best I have seen in a video game. A wide arrange of colors on display, carefully put details on enemies and backgrounds, animation is fluid, and a lot of cool particle effects. However, these visuals do come with a toll as the game tends to have framerate drops and stuttering at times. Mainly when it comes to loading areas, pausing the game, and when too much is happening. I personally did not find this much of a problem as the game is great, and I played the Nintendo Switch version which a lot of people consider the weakest one. I feel like the developers should be proud they managed to get it running smoothly for the most part. Give it a couple of more weeks and time they’ll probably release more patches.
Final thing is the story which I should delve into seeing how they put a lot of care and attention into it. I thought the story was great, but at the same time forgettable. How come? Protagonist is great, you encounter a lot of cool characters, there’s interesting lore, and the plot twist near the end hooks you in deep. The ending is satisfying and the game tells the player that no matter what tries to bring you down in life you have to get back up and keep on pushing. It’s a good story, but it feels absent sometimes. Like the developers take long periods before they hop back into telling it. I blame myself for not paying careful attention, but that’s not to say it isn’t comprehensible. It is easy to follow which is good, because being a more narrative focused metroidvania you don’t want it to be too complicated. My last complaint is that I wish there was a skip button for the opening dialogue to boss fights. You can do it for certain scenes, but when it comes to attempting a boss again I have to button mash to get back in. It gets pretty annoying. These sound like major complaints, but just know I really love this game. For twenty bucks you are getting one of the best indies 2023 has to offer and man has it been a good year. I’m super excited for the studios’ next big game and hope it goes well. In the end I am giving 9 Years of Shadows a 9.5/10 for excellence at best.
This critique was written by the single man at Review on. Stay tuned for more content and feel free to check more reviews out over at my site!