Definitely Not Ninja Gaiden | Cyber Shadow Review
Updated: Feb 26, 2021
One of my favorite ideas to consider in the last five or so years of gaming culture is the Indie Dev follow-up. We all love Indie games, and new developers releasing instant classics that rival the highest budget AAA games is truly a sight to behold. Possibly even more exciting than that to me personally, however, is thinking about where those developers go next. Do they expand on the same IP? Execute on a new idea? Explore new genres? I wonder about the possibilities these fresh creative minds could endeavor towards probably more often than the general consumer, but I will wonder no further. Yacht Club Games came out swinging in 2014 with what is now the face of indie games, Shovel Knight, and while they did technically already follow it up with expansions to the game that act as fully separate campaigns, I consider Cyber Shadow to be Yacht Club's true second game (though, they didn't develop it, just published it) (It's also come to my attention that Yacht Club published an Azure Striker Gunvolt game, so... oops). With 2018's "The Messenger" being my only frame of reference for Ninja Gaiden style games, my appetite was certainly whet for another take on the classic platformer, and let me tell you does Cyber Shadow deliver.
Cyber-Shadow Clone Jutsu
Let's just rip the Band-Aid off now: Cyber Shadow is basically just Ninja Gaiden... again. That is not necessarily a bad thing, however, as Ninja Gaiden is a well-respected and well-revered franchise. I have personally never played a Ninja Gaiden, but to my limited knowledge, Mechanical Head Studios does a great job faithfully recreating the gameplay formula of those games. The other glaring comparison this game has drawn is to The Messenger, a game that also attempts to imitate the Ninja Gaiden formula. Where these two adaptations differ, however, is that halfway through The Messenger, the game sheds its linear side-scroller shell and opens up each of the levels you've played through for exploration. Though this transition fits the game's narrative and meta-shattering style, it creates a dichotomy between what it's trying to be and what it is. It then becomes difficult to truly call it a Ninja Gaiden spiritual successor. Alternatively, Cyber Shadow is just that: a bonafide 2D side-scrolling action platformer (with Ninjas).
The only real potential downside to the faithfulness of Cyber Shadow is its difficulty. Like Ninja Gaiden, it can be absolutely brutal at times, and will require precision and patience in order to complete. If you are concerned that the difficulty could be an obstacle, I recommend skipping this one. There were definitely several portions of the game that made me want to put a hole through my TV, so I could see it being a turn-off for many people. However, if you're a fan of Ninja Gaiden, or don't mind the challenge, then absolutely give it a shot. Difficulty aside, it is incredibly well designed and features a plethora of great moments. And as always with these reviews obviously the pixel-art graphics and chiptune soundtrack are phenomenal.
While You Were Buying Stocks, I Studied the Blade
Talk about a contemporary reference, jeez. As you journey through the neo-futuristic Meka City, you do gain a variety of new abilities and upgrades to your health and mana. These power-ups are distributed very steadily and create a great sense of progression. And for those with a keen eye, extra health and mana upgrades can be found scattered throughout levels, usually just out of the normal reach. Another fantastic design choice is seen each time you obtain a new ability: the game either forces you to use said ability to progress, or puts enemies in your path that are particularly vulnerable to it. This is the ideal way to teach players how to use them effectively and what situations the abilities will be useful in, and to be completely honest, I wish more games did it. That being said, none of the upgrades really feel like a significant boost in strength, maybe expect for when you acquire the double jump, but that doesn't happen until you're at least halfway through the game. This is a product of the game's scaling, which does leave a bit to be desired. You obtain consistent upgrades to your health, but those upgrades become almost negligible as the minimum damage an enemy deals to you increases towards the middle and end of the game alongside.
The modernity it exhibits is evident in its removal of lives, which in platformers of old meant getting a "Game Over" when those lives were depleted. They are instead fully replaced by a checkpoint system, where physical altars are littered throughout a given level and will recover your health when interacted with. You can also spend points (I'm not actually sure what they're called) that drop from enemies to allow the checkpoints to refill your mana and give you a fun special weapon, which are each unique and useful. Their effects range from simple things like gradually refilling your mana and extending the range of your sword, to a chargeable blaster shot or a momentum-based yo-yo blade that is tethered to you and swings around you (It's called the Swag Blade and it's fucking rad). My only problem with this system is that during the last four or so chapters of the game, the only ones that show up are the same three that aren't the most fun to use. Things like the swag blade only really appear a couple times which is a bit of a bummer.
I almost forgot to mention the story, and that's probably for a reason. Though more prominent in the game than I originally anticipated, I had a hard time getting invested or really following the story. It mentioned seemingly important characters fairly often whom we'd never met, and wouldn't meet until much later. From what I could tell there wasn't anything revelatory going on either, so it wasn't much of a factor in my enjoyment of the game. I do however have to quickly mention the boss fights, which are excellent. They are dynamic and challenging, and absolutely stand out as the highlights of this game.
Cyber Shadow is a tight action-platformer that beautifully captures the spirit of classic Ninja Gaiden games whilst incorporating some modern design sensibilities. In some areas it is perhaps too rooted in the past, but nonetheless it is a fun playthrough, and fans of the genre will love it. Now I am wondering about Yacht Club's next endeavor... god help me.