Throwback games of all genres are all the rage on the indie scene these days, and Cyber Shadow fits right in. Part of its surge in popularity can be traced back to Yacht Club Game’s smash hit Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove. In many ways, that game felt just like the platformers of old, complete with big, chunky pixels, a kicking soundtrack, colorful graphics, and almost immediately iconic characters. It also felt like revisionist history; gone were outdated ideas like a lives system, and you could upgrade your character with permanent buffs like extra strength and health. Point being, Yacht Club Games is no stranger to making excellent platformers that feel old school with modern ideas.
Cyber Shadow is the first game they’ve published but didn’t develop, with Mechanical Head Studios taking the reins instead. And if my first hour and a half of the game is anything to go by, it would appear the once-small indie studio is looking to corner the market on challenging throwback platformers.
In many ways, Cyber Shadow feels similar to Shovel Knight. The graphics look like they’d fit right at home on the original NES, the soundtrack is pretty damn good, and the challenge level is high. But whereas SK was a sort of mishmash between Duck Tales and Super Mario Bros 3, with some Zelda 2 thrown in for good measure, Cyber Shadow feels more like Ninja Gaiden by way of the original Castlevania, but with a much more accessible difficulty than either of those infamous titles.
You control a ninja whose design looks like it leapt off the page of an 80s comic book in a dystopian future where AI robots have all but decimated humanity. At two chapters in, the plot is fairly bare-bones, with a standard setup for this type of game, but that’s totally fine since, like many games from the era it’s aping, it’s little more than an excuse to hang the gameplay on. At least so far. I will admit, I was enticed by something the game did with the first chapter’s boss; it was a cyborg that shoots energy blasts across the screen, with an easy trick being the ability to jump behind it and slash away. Doing this proves relatively easy, but the boss directly addressed this course of action after the fight, calling me a coward and saying that the rest of the ninja tribe would never resort to something as lowly as backstabbing.
I’ll fully admit that I haven’t seen much of the pre-release marketing, so I apologize if this is a spoiler of some sort, but I wonder if the game will have multiple endings depending on how you fight the end of chapter bosses. It’d be a neat twist on the straightforward action-platformer gameplay, and it’s something I’m looking forward to seeing more of.
Of course, the level design is the real star of the show. Even from the early stages, Cyber Shadow is unafraid of really sticking it to players, with each section introducing some new mechanic. For instance, in chapter two, which occurs in a factory-like setting, blocks are constantly falling from dispensers on the ceiling. This is introduced early on so players can get used to it before it ties directly into the core platforming. By the end, I had to carefully time my jumps with the falling blocks, and coming out successfully felt great.
Like Shovel Knight, Cyber Shadow doesn’t penalize players too much for death, which is just as well considering the number of spike pits and bottomless falls it throws at you. Checkpoints are fairly generous, and you gain the ability to upgrade them to include things like health and special ammo regeneration. So far as I can tell, this is the only thing to spend your currency on, but the regeneration definitely comes in handy. Strangely, as far as I can tell, there’s no penalty for dying apart from being sent back to your most recent checkpoint. Even Shovel Knight had a Souls-esque mechanic where you had to recover some of your gold if you died. This isn’t a point against the game, of course, and the lack of punishment is nice because I can already tell that this game is going to get tough.
Like the best action-platformers, there’s a distinct rhythm to the level design, and much of the fun comes from figuring out how to get through a given section while taking as little damage as possible. The enemy design feels precise and deliberate, designed to challenge the player and force them to improve and learn without aggravating too much. You’ll rarely sit still in Cyber Shadow due to the number of enemies and how they synergize with the environment. Unlike combat in other games, a tricky jump is just as much of an enemy as the many robots you fight against.
Something I have noticed and something that has me slightly worried about how the game will develop is that movement doesn’t seem to be the priority. In Shovel Knight, each character in the various campaigns had distinct ways of moving through the level that made them feel unique. For instance, Spectre Knight could launch himself off of lanterns in the environments and run up walls, making him an agile joy to control. The eponymous Shovel Knight could bounce off enemies with his shovel, leading to really tricky platforming sections. I only bring this up because another recent indie hit, The Messenger, also harkens back to NES-based Ninja games, but the player character came with a whole host of moves that only expanded the further in the game you got. Controlling the titular Messenger just felt great. That’s not to say controlling the ninja in Cyber Shadow feels bad; on the contrary, the game feels precise and razor-sharp. But so far neither of the two moves I’ve unlocked have had any impact on their mobility. Granted, I’m early in the game, so I have no idea if this will change or not.
Overall, my impressions of Cyber Shadow are enthusiastic. The challenge has ramped up pretty quickly, and Mechanical Head Studios seems to have an excellent grasp of what makes action platformers of yesteryear, or more recent titles like Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2, so enjoyable. Time will tell how the core platforming mechanics develop over the game’s run time, but for right now, Cyber Shadow is yet another throwback platformer from an indie studio at the top of their game.
Cyber Shadow is now available on Playstation 4, Xbox 1, Steam, and Nintendo Switch.