Ninjas and Robots and Mutants, Oh My!
Sometimes I think people wonder why I’m so captivated by retro inspired games. It’s not merely because of nostalgia on my part. Sure, I grew up in the NES era, so maybe that’s a part of why I enjoy them. But it’s more than that. There’s a pure simplicity to classic games. They accomplish so much with so little. The durability of the artist’s creative vision turns pixels into an entire world. Sure, you can do a lot with modern graphics, but I maintain it’s much more impressive to do a lot with classic graphics. Which brings us to Cyber Shadow. I’ve had this game on my radar for a very long time, even before it got support from Yacht Club Games. And after spending several hours with the adventure, I can confidently say this is a title that perfectly showcases why I love these games.
Don’t Call It Ninja Gaiden
At first blush, Cyber Shadow looks a lot like Ninja Gaiden. And sure, it has stylish cutscenes and lots of angry creatures trying to kill you. But Cyber Shadow is also inspired by games like Mega Man, with a little Contra thrown in. That might make it appear the game is overly derivative, but I feel it does enough unique things to set itself apart from those classic series. It mixes key elements from those games together in new and exciting ways. To showcase that, let’s spend some time talking about the premise.
L-Gion to the Rescue?
The game starts with a container being opened up by a hovering robot. As the occupant comes out, memories flash by. An explosion, destruction, and suddenly new life. Once you were a ninja named Shadow, but now you’re both more and less. Your consciousness has been transferred to a synthetic body after the explosion. The hovering bot L-Gion informs you that most of your clan has been wiped out, and you’re tasked with trying to save your lost Master. A scientist named Dr. Progen has gone mad with power and sent his robotic army after your clan to harvest them as living batteries, forcibly absorbing their Ninjutsu powers. Though you were brought back to life successfully, you’re rapidly decaying, and your shell won’t last long. With the odds stacked against him, Shadow must reclaim his strength, find his clan and save the day.
Trust Him, He’s a Doctor
One of the things I enjoyed most about Cyber Shadow was how unexpectedly complex the plot is. Without any spoilers, things may not be as clear cut as they first seem, and there are many mysteries afoot. I was admittedly suspicious from the very beginning, and wondered if I could trust the advice from L-Gion. As you play, you’ll encounter several terminals where you can read logs about Dr. Progen’s scheming. You also can use Shadow’s connection to a hidden realm called Ethos to read the psychic imprint of fallen allies, learning more about how the world fell and why. There’s a lot of nuance here, and unlike Ninja Gaiden, it’s pretty enjoyable unearthing all the story tidbits. The only downside to the storytelling is Shadow himself is a bit of a blank slate for most of the game. He rarely communicates, and we usually discover his personality only through flashbacks showing what he was like before the explosion.
Cue the Muzak on the Murder Elevator
Any classic game is only as good as the gameplay, and I was mostly happy with the gameplay in Cyber Shadow. At first all Shadow can do is jump and slash. But as he defeats bosses, he’ll slowly acquire new skills. Initially, many of the bosses are using stolen Ninjitsu against Shadow, and once he defeats them, he acquires that ability by freeing the harvested clan member. You’ll eventually get new skills like tossing ethereal shuriken, bouncing off foes with your blade, dashing across wide distances, deflecting projectiles, and more. These abilities don’t require new buttons, just specific directional inputs combined with your attack button. They’re all pretty intuitive, other than the dash and deflect. The game never explains that once you start running by pressing forward twice, your regular attack sends Shadow dashing across a long distance. I spent a good several minutes locked in one area after learning the dash skill, and only stumbled upon that technique. As for the deflect, while it’s a really cool ability, it’s also a bit tricky. You have to press towards a projectile right before it hits you. After that, you can slash it back at foes with your sword. That wouldn’t be so bad, but the timing is very precise, and often Cyber Shadow will force you to deflect projectiles while in mid-air, floating over dangerous spikes. If anything, I probably wouldn’t have minded either the dash or deflect as much if I could have assigned them to alternate buttons. I think the shoulder buttons would have been ideal for the deflect, and I wish I could hold a button to dash without consecutive presses. But none of that ruined my experience, it just stood out since the other techniques were so seamless.
Every Ninja Needs a Hidden Dojo
I should also point out, using many of those Ninjutsu skills requires SP. Some, like the shuriken, won’t be accessible without SP. Others can be used when your SP meter is empty, but will just be less powerful. For example, the downward sword bounce is wreathed in flames when you have some SP, but otherwise is just a regular sword. Another example is an upward sword slash that hurls literal fireballs when empowered but otherwise is just an upward strike. I thought that was a smart differentiation, and it makes it so the game isn’t completely infuriating if you’re out of SP. Another nice modern convenience in the game are the checkpoints. Simply running across them makes it so you’ll return there after you die, but you can pay with in-game coins to make it more useful. You can pay so that checkpoint also refills your SP meter and even provides you with a sub-weapon. There’s a variety of sub-weapons, ranging from a projectile shield to a gun droid to a sword slash extender and more. Though they all help out, they also only stick around for a limited time before disappearing.
Don’t Let the Goo Catch You
The combat in Cyber Shadow is very fun, but also very challenging. Though you can find items to extend your base health and SP, all it takes is landing on a spike to instantly kill you. And rest assured, the various foes arrayed against you love to knock you into spikes and make your life miserable. The first hours of the game are a bit more balanced, but once you have all your abilities, the game really stress tests you. You’ll face security lasers that summon a horde of robots, organic goo that chases after you, dangerous electrical surges, and much more. My main issue late in the game was that my own Xbox 360 controller started acting up, and it wouldn’t let me dash consistently. Suffice to say, you’ll really need to be able to dash effectively in the later parts of the game. One notable example is a room full of spikes that requires dashing through narrow alcoves, landing on pillars, then wall climbing and rinse and repeating up a tower lined with more spikes. That’s just one of the more extreme examples, but it does show how the game gets brutal as you progress.
Real Ninjas Murder Tanks
Regardless of the difficulty, the game does mix things up at several points to keep the experience interesting. Though the adventure is nominally linear, you’ll eventually retrace your steps with the ability to reach new hidden depths. You’ll also experience new traps in old areas, but I’m hesitant to say more about that. Some of the really cool elements are when you’ll have Shadow hack into networks to unlock security systems, or when you team up with an especially talkative motorcycle to lay waste to Progen’s armies. Cyber Shadow will constantly keep you guessing, and it all makes the time fly by. Just be prepared for the difficulty spikes that occur. Speaking of difficulty, let’s spend some time talking about the bosses of the game.
Robots Shouldn’t Get Shuriken
The boss fights are decidedly a highlight of Cyber Shadow. There’s a staggering range, from more humanoid foes to rolling armored tanks to dangerous biological experiments. Many of the bosses have more than one phase, often with a totally new set of attacks. Most of them will knock you on your butt at least a couple of times, though, for the most part, they felt fair. One that gave me a lot of trouble was a battle against a giant robotic dragon in a pool of water. You have to constantly drop flying platforms so you can stand safely atop them for a moment. Meanwhile, the dragon swims pasts rapidly, popping out to breathe fire, burst up unexpectedly, or electrocute everything touching the water. I probably had to try a dozen times before I finally brought that foe to heel. Another challenging boss forces you to only fight it by deflecting their own projectiles back at them. Overall though, I really appreciated the bosses and felt they brought this dystopian world to life.
Best Bike Ever
Visually, I’m completely taken aback by Cyber Shadow. I haven’t played a modern retro game this pretty since the likes of Shovel Knight and The Messenger. It makes amazing use of pixels, and really creates an amazing world. That’s especially apparent from the enemies you’ll face. Though at first most will be robotic, you’ll also face hideous mutants, twisted insects, poisonous skull bubbles, and so much more. Though I admit I especially loved the robots, everything in this game looks outstanding. That goes double for the environments, ranging from scrapyards to poison swamps to derelict train stations and dangerous research facilities. And as I said earlier, the cutscenes are also very appealing and bring back fond memories of Ninja Gaiden. Musically it’s pretty great as well. There’s a variety of tracks to match the mood of the levels, and they’re all pretty catchy. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re unforgettable, they also don’t wear out their welcome. Honestly, if I hadn’t played The Messenger first, I would have likely thought the music here was top tier. That said, it’s still very fun, and a great nod to retro gaming. Together, the visuals and music make Cyber Shadow a game worth experiencing.
The Past Makes the Present More Fun
While I’ve spent a lot of time covering what Cyber Shadow does right, there’s a lot more I could talk about. But since that would cross into spoiler territory, I’ll let you discover for yourselves why this is one of the best games of the new year. There’s a lot of replay value here, too, thanks to Yacht Club implementing a whole host of achievements, regardless of whether you play the game on Steam or consoles. Though it can get more than a bit challenging at times, I’d heartily recommend this to any fan of the classics. Even if you don’t appreciate NES games of yore, this is still a tremendous adventure full of mystery and danger. Kudos to Mechanical Head Games on developing Cyber Shadow, and many thanks to Yacht Club for helping it reach its full potential.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Steam (reviewed), Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One; Publisher: Yacht Club Games; Developer: Mechanical Head Games; Players: 1; Released: January 26, 2021; ESRB: E10+; MSRP: $19.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.