What 2D side-scroller Cyber Shadow is missing in personality it makes up for with amazing visuals and action sequences that challenge your timing and reflexes without ever feeling tedious or cheap. I’ve been loving my time with its pastiche of classic NES games, even if, so far, its story hasn’t measured up to everything else it excels at.
Out January 26 on PS4, Xbox One (and Game Pass), Switch, and PC, Cyber Shadow was developed by Mechanical Head Studios and published by Shovel Knight creators Yacht Club Games. I first fell in love with it while playing a demo at PAX East 2019 in Boston. There, creator Aarne “MekaSkull” Hunziker explained that the game grew out of his time hacking NES ROMs to create his spin on classics. The result would be a mixtape of elements drawn from several different games to create something with an old-school look but modern feel. Having now played the finished product, it’s clear Hunziker has succeeded.
Cyber Shadow revolves around a cyborg ninja awoken after a bomb has blown up much of a futuristic city. The city’s autonomous robotic workforce is on a killing spree. Making your way through the apocalyptic remnants, you find upgrades to your ninja abilities, encounter big bosses, and slowly uncover clues about what’s befallen the rest of your ninja clan and the city they were charged with protecting. Mostly this entails slicing through other robots with a katana, a repetitive action that the game has kept incredibly satisfying over my roughly three hours with it so far thanks to slick controls and wonderfully designed levels.
Cyber Shadow is structured like a Metroidvania, interlocking side-scrolling environments you can backtrack through after gaining new abilities to unlock hidden secrets in older areas. Its combat draws more on Ninja Gaiden, requiring you to tightly execute attacks and jumps in order to survive narrow corridors full of enemies and their projectiles. Succeed and you’ll make it to the next checkpoint, slowly chipping away at difficult levels. Die and you’ll go back to the last one to analyze your mistakes and try again. All of this is set to an amazing chiptune-ish soundtrack by composer Enrique Martin and sound producer Jake Kaufman.
I’m about halfway through Cyber Shadow, and so far every new section of the game has managed to surprise me in some way. Its pixel art, which reminds me of Axiom Verge in how expertly it manages to recreate the hyper-detailed look of old side-scrollers, is full of little touches like extra highlights and shadows that make levels feel dense and vibrant, sizzling with life even when much of it is in the background. izzle with life. New enemy types are rolled out every few checkpoints, slowly building up the game’s arsenal of ways to make your life miserable. And environmental hazards, from dripping acid that disintegrates platforms to laser beams that target you from off-screen towers, add another layer to account for in your platforming.
A few chapters in, the game introduces you to water. I fell in by accident, only to realize that instead of dying I could actually swim. Soon I encountered a type of robot that, after killing, dropped into the water to form a temporary junkraft. Later, electrical enemies would shoot current into the water, lighting me up if I happened to be in it. Eventually, these bits culminated in a serpent boss fight in a large water-filled arena bookended by walls of spikes. I was moving around like it was a Ninja Gaiden game, in a boss fight that could have been ripped straight out of Mega Man 3, but with some clever twists that made me occasionally feel like I was playing a side-scrolling Zelda.
In addition to a horizontal katana attack, you slowly unlock other abilities like throwing stars, fire balls, and ground stomps, each requiring a bit of magic to deploy. In addition to helping you reach hidden secrets, these attacks can be the key to getting through a particularly tough stretch of enemy territory or boss battle. To give you more control over managing these sections, Cyber Shadow’s checkpoints also come with their own mini-upgrades, which you can buy with crystals dropped by fallen enemies.
For example, I kept getting destroyed by said serpentine mech boss until I finally spent some of my reserves on upgrading the checkpoint right before so that it would restore my magic points and start me off with a buster cannon that could charge up to unleash long range blasts. The fight was still challenging, but at least manageable now that I no longer had to worry about getting in close to use my katana. Cyber Shadow can be pretty unforgiving, but it always feels like the tools or knowledge needed to advance are within reach.
The only part of the game that hasn’t been wow-ing me is its story and the intrigue laced throughout its worldbuilding. As you play you run into the remains of other members of your clan. Some have already perished, leaving behind only short diary entries. Others can be rescued from powerful robots and let you absorb their remaining powers in order to better carry on the fight.
Your creator, a scientist whose abilities exceeded his moral grasp, appears to have turned evil after experiments to save his daughter’s life went awry. So far it’s all felt like a bit of a mess. Occasionally short pixel art cutscenes of character close-ups are used to add emotional weight to the proceedings, but it’s all felt too diluted by the competing plot elements: robot apocalypse, mystical ninjas, corrupt scientist father.
Cyber Shadow’s Mekacity is full of great retro visuals, music, and action, but none of it has really cohered into something larger or more specific than a great arcade experience for me. Maybe I’ll feel different by the time I finish the game. For now though, the rest of its elements are more than enough to make me want to keep going.