Cyber Shadow answers a very specific question, namely: What would a modern AAA video game look like if it existed in the eighties? Now, if you’re feeling pedantic you could argue that Sabotage Studio’s The Messenger already answered that question way back in 2018. But that would be to do Cyber Shadow a disservice. Whilst The Messenger was a loving parody of retro classics, Cyber Shadow takes itself very, very seriously. But can a retro-infused nostalgia fix succeed without having a sense of humour?
Let’s talk visuals. Because, if like me, your first experience of a video game console was the NES then seeing Cyber Shadow in motion will give you a nostalgic dopamine hit of epic proportions. This is a gorgeous game. The 8-bit visuals are, quite frankly, kissable. What Aarne “MekaSkull” Hunziker of Mechanical Head Games has accomplished is nothing short of astonishing. Smooth animation, super-detailed characterisation and a palpable sense of atmosphere – Aarne has perfected the art of 8-bit visual design.
Running left to right, that’s the name of Cyber Shadow’s game. To be fair, that doesn’t sound like the most exciting of activities, so let’s add slicing and dicing bad guys and dying a lot to the in-game options. You control Shadow, a cyber ninja on a mission to hack and slash his way through Mekacity. On the way he’ll attempt to rescue captured members of his clan and ultimately defeat the completely nefarious and brilliantly named Dr. Progen.
If that all sounds a little like a Saturday morning cartoon then fear not, despite the possible restrictions of the 8-bit inspired visuals this is a story wonderfully told. Shadow has lost his short term memory and flashbacks are delivered as gorgeous cut-scenes throughout the adventure. The memory-loss angle creates a suspenseful tale with a sense of palpable unease, you know that something isn’t quite right with Shadow but the spot-on pacing of the story keeps you waiting – and wanting – to know more.
The description of ‘spot-on pacing’ can’t be applied to the lethargic dribble of power-ups that come Shadow’s way. Just like any 2D action platformer, Shadow gradually gains a slew of abilities which can be used to further explore previous levels. Normally this is an excellent device to drive a player’s engagement and commitment to the game, yet Cyber Shadow waits an absolute age before dishing out the fun stuff.
You’ll be bashing bosses for many a level with the slim reward of useful but tedious health boosts and uninspired abilities that you’ll rarely use. In fact, I was well into a third of the game before unlocking the wall climb skill. Whilst this ability certainly opens up the game world for exploration, it felt late in its arrival – I’m used to being able to double jump and wall climb in my retro platformers from the get-go. There are some more interesting abilities to eventually be unlocked, but by the time you can parry, dash and cross slash like a ninja master it all feels a little too late into your adventure. For far too long you’ll be stuck jumping with a basic attack and not a lot else going for you.
Difficulty wise Cyber Shadow is as challenging and unforgiving as you would expect a game of this genre to be. Overall, it’s mostly fair, though there are some glaringly cruel exceptions. The first example is in the intensely irritating ‘knockback’ mechanic. ‘Big bad robot ninja killing machine’ Shadow leaps back a good metre if only even gently caressed by a teeny tiny monster. Not a massive problem initially but when a lot of the later action takes place on precipitous platforms positioned above insta-kill spikes, you’ll soon be wishing that Shadow kept his feet planted firmly on the ground. There’s also too brief of an invulnerability interval after Shadow is struck and knocked back for my taste – it’s far too easy to lose several lives before you have any chance of recovering.
These frustrations are alleviated somewhat by some wise development decisions that act as a soothing balm to damaged gamer egos. Take the well-placed checkpoints. You’ll rarely have to travel too far before finding a handy machine that’ll offer you a quick save, a health boost and the opportunity to buy a power-up. Controls are also tight and precise, when things went horribly wrong for Shadow I knew it was my fault, even if I didn’t want to admit that to myself. Also, in a far more generous touch than many a NES game, your progress won’t be reset after death – any doors you’ve opened or power-ups you’ve collected will not be cruelly forgotten.
Bosses will test you to the limit, of course, but there are some brilliantly dramatic encounters to experience. Going up against titanic mechs, humongous robot dragons, and vast tanks push the iconic 8-bit visuals to breaking point. There’s a surprising level of tension created too; leaping from platform to platform as the music quietens and you’ll suspect something big, nasty and mechanical will soon appear – though it will still prove a butt clencher when it eventually does. There’s also some stand out set-pieces that channel the finest that the action films of the 1980s had to offer – a rough and ready motorcycle race and the opportunity to lay waste whilst piloting a deadly mech prove enjoyable and memorable palette cleansers.