Cyber Shadow Review – As good as the classics

Reviewed January 26, 2021 on PC

Platforms:

Xbox One, PS4, PC, Switch

Released:

January 26, 2021

Publisher:

Yacht Club Games

Developer:

Mechanical Head Games

Cyber Shadow is an 8-bit inspired action platformer developed by Mechanical Head Games and published by Yacht Club Games. The world has been taken over by Dr. Progen and his synthetic army. Playing as Shadow, the last survivor of his clan, you embark on an adventure spanning multiple challenging levels and bosses in an effort to uncover the truth.

Retro-inspired games tend to wear their influences on their sleeve and reference legendary titles of the past, many of which can be located and played free if you know where to look. This puts these sorts of titles up against serious competition, why play the imitator when you can play the real thing? Well, sometimes these new titles seriously deliver and in the case of Cyber Shadow, its tight gameplay, banging music and modern sensibilities means it can easily stand on its own.

You start off the game waking in a pod in Mekacity. Meeting your robotic companion L-Gion for the first time, it is explained that the world has gone to ruin with Dr. Progen and his synthetic army having wiped out your clan. But what has happened to the clan’s master? Off we go then, to make our way through the various locations in Mekacity, defeating Progen’s minions and of course the formidable end-of-stage bosses along the way.

There are secrets to uncover that will help you increase your health, survivors to rescue and new skills to be learnt. The story unfolds by speaking to survivors and L-Gion during levels and the odd animated cutscene furthers the narrative. Trust me, you will need all the skills and help you can get because some of these levels and bosses are TOUGH.

Cyber Shadow is an action platformer along the lines of Ninja Gaiden on the NES. There’s also a bit of Megaman thrown in there as well, particularly in both the control and the mechanic of adding new skills along the way by beating bosses. It is critical for games like this that the control is on point and precise, otherwise jumping between platforms becomes a frustrating experience and ruins the feel of a game. Luckily Cyber Shadow nails it with responsive, precise jumping and movement.

There was only one section where I found the tiny platforms a little tricky. I also found the D-pad more effective than the analogue stick because some of the moves are direction based (ie hold down and press attack) and, especially when it was necessary to perform them in the air, the analogue stick just wasn’t cutting it for me. Overall a rather small critique considering how good the game controlled overall.

Titles in this genre need to be wary of difficulty and learning curve, with some action platformers of the past being notoriously punishing. One of the reasons for this is that game testers back in the day were more skilled than the average gamer, which meant games were being designed and iterated upon with those pros in mind. For the most part, Cyber Shadow doesn’t fall into this trap and instead gets the balance right.

There are a couple of sections I felt crossed the line into frustrating but they are the exception rather than the rule. There is an early section, for instance, on a rising platform where you need to negotiate instant death spikes, enemies that can knock you into those spikes and lasers shooting from the sides of the screen. There was a lot going on and I honestly had to take a bit of a break after multiple deaths there. Once I made it through, I had no desire to go through it again.

The level bosses are really cool. You’ll get to battle a giant tank on a sea of fire, other synthetic ninjas and a giant fire breathing serpent. Most of these you can get through after a couple of tries once you learn the pattern. The serpent, although impressive, was a bit of an annoying one. Battling on water, you have to make sure you hit enemies to create platforms to stand on to try and hit the serpent before it fries you. I found I had to get too close to actually get some hits in and it took forever to kill the beast so it was more an endurance test than a fun fight.

Some welcome modern touches in Cyber Shadow include the checkpoint system and infinite lives. Back in the day, once you were through all your lives, it was game over and starting again from scratch. Thankfully Cyber Shadow feels fairer than those classics of the genre. The placement of checkpoints throughout the chapters also feels fair and the distance between them is enough for the game to be challenging without being frustrating. This is a good call because it will reduce the risk of the player giving up entirely. There are few things worse than battling through a difficult section, accidentally dying and having a long long way to get back.

Whilst all checkpoints will replenish your health, some will also allow you to purchase a weapon or refill your soul meter. These are also always placed right before bosses which is great. Another niggle in some of the older games was trying to take on a boss with low health, so this eliminates that frustration entirely.

Along the way you pick up new skills such as the ability to throw shurikens, ground attacks and the ability to slide down walls/wall jump. I get why this progression system is popular in games, it enhances the experience as you go and also adds some replay value when returning to earlier levels. But I sit in the camp that feels that some of these skills should be part of the game from the start, particularly things like the ability to wall jump because it just makes the gameplay better. Also, this game could have used a crouch button.

On the visual side, Cyber Shadow looks the part. It captures the look and feel of 8-bit action games for sure and adds a bit of pizzazz with some parallax scrolling and visual treats that blur the line between 8 and 16-bit experiences. I would have liked to see a little more colour variation early on in the game, although overall it’s very nice to look at.

Starting out, it felt like stage after stage had the same derelict subterranean visuals, which is fine, it works for the setting. But I think with games of this genre where, if we are honest, the gameplay is pretty similar most of the way through, developers really should consider mixing it up stage by stage so the player wants to see what’s next. The first time I came across water and something a little different in the game was a hallelujah moment, but I wish that came sooner and more often.

Cyber Shadow also features a truly awesome soundtrack. Thumping away in the background it is as good as any classic or modern era game and reminds me of classic action platformer soundtracks like Super Turrican. I’ll be adding that one to a playlist for sure.

There are scores of titles that try and recreate the experience of games from a classic era, most of the time they get the visuals right but miss the intricacies that made action platformers a key genre back in the day. It’s hard to take on most of them without feeling like you may as well just play the real deal. Cyber Shadow though manages to execute its vision almost flawlessly, both the aesthetic and the feel. I never once felt like turning it off and just playing Shinobi on the Mega Drive instead.

It is really difficult to reference an era without coming off as a second rate counterfeit. Cyber Shadow, however, is one of those rare gems with enough originality that it has the goods to stand on its own as a quality title and deserves serious respect, not to mention a play.

8

Great

Positive:

  • Vibrant, 8-bit inspired presentation
  • Tight, precise control scheme
  • Fantastic boss fights
  • Banging soundtrack

Negative:

  • Occasional frustrating difficulty spikes
  • Some of the learned skills should have been included from the start

Cyber Shadow is one of those rare retro-inspired titles that does not pale in comparison to its references or feel like a cheap knock off. Pretty much everything about Cyber Shadow is on point and executed flawlessly. From the visuals, to the sound, to the precise and responsive gameplay. The game gets the difficulty balance right the majority of the time. It’s tough enough to be challenging but rarely hard enough to be considered unfair. The addition of well-placed checkpoints and infinite lives definitely make the challenge more palatable than its ancestors. It is a really solid action platformer and a really good game that deserves some play.