2023 is a pretty good time to be a gamer. The indie scene is stronger than ever, developers of all shapes and sizes have access to incredibly powerful tools, and it's relatively rare to find something as putrid as E.T. or Superman 64.
As a result, it can be easy to take certain things for granted when it comes to game design and development. Good voice acting (or well-written text dialogue), controller support with customizable buttons, and properly designed pause menus are just a few examples of what may seem like small potatoes until you have a run-in with a title that unfortunately misses those marks.
Such was my position when I received the review code for 9 Years of Shadows from developer Halberd Studios, an enjoyable Metroidvania that does all the little things right. It doesn't make any huge innovations upon the genre's tropes, but it is tightly designed and checks all the boxes for an experience that just feels good to play. The gorgeous pixel art, smooth animations, and incredible soundscape make the game a joy to observe as well.
You play as Europa, a young woman who lost her parents and an eye, to a curse that robbed the world of color. 9 years after those fateful events, Europa journeys into the castle from which the curse emanated, determined to get revenge and restore the world to its former glory.
After an anime-quality intro movie and a quick tutorial, you come up against a demon you cannot defeat. Utterly dejected, Europa is visited by a floating blue teddy bear that heals her wounds and seemingly wants to help her on the quest to save the world. Though the dialog is one-sided because the teddy bear speaks only in a version of bleeps and bloops, he's a cute AI companion of the style I always enjoy in games. They agree to work together, and the bear becomes a central mechanic of the game, giving Europa a light bar that acts as both a shield and ranged attack offensive weapon.
This sets you on the path of a very faithful Metroidvania adventure, sticking with most of the time-honored tropes but doing so through gorgeous environs across a map with enough variety among settings and enemies to keep things interesting. In true genre style, you'll go from room to room, fighting baddies and collecting coins. Along the way, you'll find items and suits of armor that open up different areas of the map through new abilities granted by your discoveries. Combat is fun, with Europa's axe being the melee weapon and the aforementioned teddy bear light blasts offering the ranged option.
Those blasts, however, are my only quibble with the combat system. Successful melee attacks replenish a small bit of the light bar each time, but if you run out completely, you can hold a button to hug the bear and replenish more than half of the bar. While this is a necessary and life-saving option in the middle of a fight, it's also a way to cheese the battles against many enemies.
If you're standing above an enemy that doesn't have a ranged attack capable of reaching you (or can simply stay out of reach of those on your level), combat is no harder than spamming the light blast attack until the bar runs out, then replenishing and spamming again until the enemy expires. This makes much of the fighting too easy, such that the only real challenge on that side of the game comes from the various mini-bosses you will encounter. I'm happy to say those boss battles are fun and memorable, but for those who prefer some challenge mixed in with their discovery, the moment-to-moment fighting doesn't offer much of it.
Speaking of discovery and exploration, they are what 9 Years of Shadows do best. The castle feels huge, and the three areas I’ve discovered at the time of this writing are an impressively small portion of the overall map. You’ll meet a fun cast of characters that I won’t spoil here and find some side areas that are even more gorgeous and well-animated than the rest of the castle. The 9 Years of Shadows team designed the map very well and made it useful, one of those small but oh-so-important things I mentioned at the start. There’s a nice (albeit small) bestiary and a great catalog of Europa’s equipment and abilities as well. Collectibles such as music notes can be turned into the various NPCs for upgrades and stat buffs, giving you a reason to poke around in all the castle’s various rooms.
I freely admit that I have not finished the game, but I am confident in the assessment offered here. Unfortunately, I lack the patience and disposable time for the customary Metroidvania-style gameplay, which entails a lot of item-hunting. However, for the legions of gamers devoted to this style of game, there is much to enjoy here. A gorgeous and interesting world mixed with well-written dialogue and enjoyable exploration makes this a castle worth visiting for any devotee of the genre.
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