What is it? A sidescrolling pixel art action game with an '80s ninja flavour.
Expect to pay: $20/£18 on Steam (opens in new tab)
Developer: Aarne “MekaSkull” Hunziker
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Reviewed on: Core i7-8750H, Nvidia GTX 1050 Ti 4GB, 6 GB RAM
Link: Official site (opens in new tab)
Remember shoulder pads, Rubik's Cubes, and dancing to Duran Duran on your Walkman? I don't, because I was born in the '90s, but Cyber Shadow makes me feel like I remember them all the same. The 8-bit ninja sidescroller is dripping with '80s cool, from the Transformer-style bots, ridiculous motorbike section, and the NES-era Ninja Gaiden-inspired cutscenes.
Ninja Gaiden isn't the only game Cyber Shadow takes its cues from, though. There's obvious shades of The Messenger and Castlevania in the level design and boss battle format, while each level's many hidden pathways are reminiscent of Metroid. Perhaps the most obvious comparison to draw is to Shovel Knight, with the pair sharing a publisher in Yacht Club Games.
Cyber Shadow is a much more concentrated experience than Shovel Knight, though, with a heavy emphasis on action and combat. It's also a tad more forgiving. 'Retro action sidescroller' is such a crowded genre that it's difficult to avoid unfavorable comparisons (something else has always done it better), but Cyber Shadow is fun and different enough to find a place near the front of the pack.
Like most of these games, you could probably describe Cyber Shadow as 'tough but fair'. Where its peers would place the emphasis on 'tough,' though, Cyber Shadow focuses on 'but fair.' It's not that it's easy, it's just a lot cleverer with checkpoint placement. Checkpoints break up short, thematically related sections, helping you find your rhythm whether you're storming through acid covered sewers, dropping down tunnels, or trying to climb while avoiding plummeting hazards. There's no cost for dying either; in fact your score carries over from death to death. It's an approach which encourages you to take risks, try out new approaches, and experiment.
Cyber Shadow gives you the arsenal for varied play too. While you initially start out with only the ability to slash with your katana, over time more powers come into the mix, with ninja stars, fireballs, dashing, and others giving you new options while you're taking on mini mechs, moths, and mechanical monsters all in the same enclosed space. As well as these permanent additions to your attack style, which typically come after defeating a boss, checkpoints will often let you buy a bonus attack which lasts for a limited time, too; particularly useful if said checkpoint is before a boss you're struggling with.
Most of the time, these powerups are simple but effective: a slightly longer sword to help you keep your distance from enemies, for example. Occasionally though, you get something which lets you cause complete carnage, like the Swag Blade, which is a magical chainsaw which whirls around you, destroying anything it touches. It doesn't make much sense for a ninja to have one of these, even in a cyberpunk-style future, but unlike the other weapons in the game, it makes you almost invincible for a short time, making it the best thing in your arsenal.
A slow start
You won't be starting off all that power, though. In fact, things are a little sparse at first with just the katana, especially as you can only attack in the direction you're facing. Combat opens up later in the game, so it's worth sticking with it, but there are other disappointments early on. The sprint ability changes the game so much you feel it would have been better to have it from the start, and the parry ability feels like a bit of a waste. There's not that many enemies it's effective on, and Cyber Shadow always feels better when you're dealing damage on the front foot.
By far my biggest gripe with the combat though is knockback—where taking damage causes you to stumble back a step. A lot of classic games have it, and a lot of retro-style games mimic it. I don't like it in any of them and I don't like it here. Most of the enemies will just take off a single HP bar, but some arena hazards (lava, spikes) will cause instant death. Taking minor damage from a flying bug at full health, only to be knocked back into a spike, is one of the few cheap deaths in Cyber Shadow. Even if I appreciated knockback more as a design element, I don't think I'd consider that a fair punishment for a single misstep.
Knockback irritation aside, there is a lot to love about Cyber Shadow's enemies. Several have fun little gimmicks, such as splitting into two smaller enemies after being hit, picking up the reward crates around the levels and throwing them at you, or firing projectiles which bounce to keep you constantly dodging. Probably the best are the floating green cylinders; they don't attack at all, they just hover menacingly directly above you, matching your footsteps, ready to sap your health as soon as you jump. They move on a short delay though, so if you're fast enough you'll get the better of them.
Those green cylinders aren't Cyber Shadow's best-looking enemies, but it features some fantastic designs elsewhere. Despite the tiny size and resolution of the sprites, we see huge variation, from Rock 'Em Sock 'Em-style robots armed with pistols to spindly, metallic facehugger inspired bugs. The bosses, meanwhile, go in the other direction, and take advantage of their ability to fill the screen, embracing the '80s philosophy of 'more is more'.
It sometimes draws a bit of a sneer when you compliment the graphics of retro titles like this: after all, games have had 'better' graphics for decades. But Cyber Shadow's high contrast colours, black spaces, minimalist NPC sprites and hyper designed bosses offer the perfect examples as to why this art style remains so well loved—it's effective.
There's one boss battle against a flying robot with a ray gun/sword (yes, it's somehow both in one), which takes place on a crumbling skyscraper rooftop during heavy rainfall while laser beams flash down from the sky. Keep your raytracing, your photorealistic CGI, your teraflops. This is the optimum graphics level to experience such pulpy chaos and I will not hear otherwise.