Since its inception, Yacht Club Games has been recognized for its old-school gaming aesthetic. That's why the team got into publishing, helping developer Mechanical Head Studios release Cyber Shadow. If the Shovel Knight series is akin to NES classics like Mega Man, Cyber Shadow feels much closer to the 8-bit Ninja Gaiden series. And more than Shovel Knight, it harkens back to the old days, warts and all.
Emerging from the shadows
Cyber Shadow tells the story of a dystopic future, where the title character Shadow wakes up in the middle of Mekacity. What was once a bustling metropolis now lies in ruins and is up in flames. That's mainly due to the machinations of Dr. Progen, a brilliant scientist who has gone mad. The key to defeating Dr. Progen lies in finding Shadow's master, but her whereabouts are unknown and a chunk of game is dedicated to finding where she ended up.
Cyber Shadow puts players in a 2D world filled with killer machines. While predecessor Shovel Knight uses self-contained, linear stages, Cyber Shadow uses single "chapters," but ties them all together in a single Metroidvania-style layout. There isn't a lot of backtracking in this game, unless you're planning to look for HP and Spirit Point (SP) upgrades. However, given what lies ahead, upgrading isn't a bad idea, because this journey is going to be tough.
I wanna be the Gaiden
Cyber Shadow is going to draw a lot of Ninja Gaiden comparisons. To start, the title character bears a slight resemblance to Ryu Hayabusa. More than that, Shadow has one main weapon: his katana blade. Like Ryu, Shadow uses his blade to cut down enemies, but is only able to strike directly in front of him. Also, like Tecmo's classic series, players will have to navigate difficult jumps and master harrowing platforming sequences before taking on massive bosses. As an homage to Ninja Gaiden and similar games from that era, Cyber Shadow hits every note, just as Shovel Knight did for the Mega Man series.
Mechanical Skull and Yacht Club also recognize the importance of modernizing an old-school formula and recognizing the areas in which gaming has evolved. It doesn't pull that off as well with Cyber Shadow for reasons I'll get into in a moment. As for what works, Cyber Shadow offers players a series of checkpoints to help cut down frustration. And, yes, Cyber Shadow can be a very frustrating game. It will make you throw your controller in anger more than once. If anything, the worst feature about the checkpoints is that there aren't enough of them. However, once you find the checkpoints, you can use in-game currency scattered from fallen enemies to add functions to those checkpoints, including health recovery, SP recovery, and power-ups. These power-ups are often worth the investment. For example, they can upgrade Shadow's sword, give him a cannon, a charge blade, or a dispenser than can slowly recover SP over time. This is especially helpful before taking on a boss.
Yes, Cyber Shadow does feel an awful lot like the old-school 8-bit Ninja Gaiden games. That also means the difficulty is off the charts and you'll be dying a lot. Many of your deaths will come in cheap ways. Enemy hits will knock you backwards and can sometimes send you straight into a death pit. Since Shadow's blade only strikes forward, more often than not, enemies will either hit you from above or below, completely out of the range of your weapon.
The enemies get even more brutal around the halfway point, as they can dodge your sword and your abilities entirely. To offer some context, over the course of the game, Shadow will earn various abilities that use up SP. They include shurikens and a diving stab. They'd be great for dispatching enemies, but the enemies often see these attacks coming and dodge them. Taking cheap hits is fine when there's a checkpoint around the corner or you can recover health, but that's not always on the table. There are no health drops from enemies (they can only be found in destructible parts of the level) and checkpoints are not plentiful.
Bosses are similarly difficult and there are many things I would call them. However, cheap isn't one of them. These bosses are all intensely challenging, but all have recognizable patterns that can be read and ultimately mastered. For example, just looking at the giant Mekadragon boss, who fights Shadow over a body of water, there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to his movements. But there is a pattern to him and, as tough as it is to navigate the floating platforms, the giant mech can be beaten. Defeating these bosses takes a lot of work, but once they go down, it feels immensely satisfying.
Living in someone's shadow
As an homage to old-school gaming, I greatly appreciate Cyber Shadow and what Yacht Club and Mechanical Head are putting out. It would be one thing to say, "If Tecmo put out an 8-bit Ninja Gaiden in the modern day, it would look like this." However, that's not entirely true. Mechanical Head has put its own flavor on this type of game through the Metroidvania-style world layout, the checkpoint system, the infinite lives (and you'll need all of them), and the boss design. It's a game that's heavily inspired by Ninja Gaiden, but one that doesn't copy it entirely.
However, there are a few areas where it feels like Cyber Shadow got inspired by Ninja Gaiden's formula a little too much. This is a game that revels in cheap deaths, making it feel like it's only for a certain type of player. If you're the type who gets frustrated easily, this game will drive you up a wall. You will likely not see it through to the end. However, as much as I can respect trying to nail down the 8-bit aesthetic, elements like enemy knockback or not being able to strike enemies coming from above or below are products of their time. And those are ideas that are best left to their time. Gaming evolved past stuff like that for a good reason, because they don't feel fun.
For anyone looking for a challenge, Cyber Shadow is going to make their day. This would have fit in like a glove with the old NES library, next to Ninja Gaiden, Contra, and Castlevania. Those who remember those days and remember nearly getting an aneurism over how crushingly difficult those old games were, maybe sit this one out.
This review is based on a PlayStation 5 digital code provided by the publisher. Cyber Shadow will be available Tuesday, January 26 on Steam, the PlayStation Store, the Microsoft Store (including via Xbox Game Pass), and the Nintendo eShop for $19.99. The game is rated E10+.
- Strong retro platforming action
- Several cool mechanics to master
- Metroidvania world layout is a cool idea
- Boss fights are a great challenge
- Intriguing story
- Ideas like enemy knockback are retro gone too far
- Challenge can sometimes feel unfair