Castles in video games are inherently unpleasant places. When they’re not filled with angry skeletons, they get oblitered about twenty seconds in. Castlevania wouldn’t have gotten far if castles were all nice and lovely. So when 9 Years of Shadows told me we were going to a castle I thought, ‘here we go again’. Just once I’d like to go to a castle and enjoy a banquet. Drink wine from a goblet.
To be fair, 9 Years of Shadows is actually set in a mechanical giant, so that’s okay. Facetiousness aside though, I found 9 Years of Shadows to be quite the absorbing experience. It may stick a little too closely to the standard metroidvania playbook, but all of its individual pieces are nicely polished. For a castle that’s cursed up to the eyeballs, it’s quite the fun place to visit.
Horrible Night For A Curse
Tonight’s castle of choice is Talos, a dormant mechanical giant slash fortress. A curse is spreading out from this castle, seeping colour from the land and corrupting the local population. Our hero, Europa, fresh off some personal tragedy, sets forth to sort it all out and bring colour back to the world. She’s aided along away by a… ghostly Teddy Bear named Apino. It makes sense in game, I promise. The plot is kept deliberately in the background, which is no bad thing, but I found myself warming to Europa. As the game progresses, we learn more about her through dialogue and her own thoughts. While her arc is a little predictable, her interactions with the non-monsterous denizens make her hard to dislike.
What’s more, I thoroughly enjoy controlling her. Metroidvania games live and die on their movement and their combat. I’m happy to report that 9 Years of Shadows is so smooth you could spread it on toast. The platforming feels accurate, with very few frustrating falls and the combat is pared back quite a bit. It’s a simple light and heavy attack combo system, with the emphasis on being in the right place at the right time. Getting into the flow, especially with bosses, feels great. Kills felt like they were my win, rather than me juggling a bunch of special moves.
The other main component of metroidvania games, of course, is the exploration. Talos is full of mysterious colour-coded doors and glowing holes in the wall. Meaning as you progress you get a whole arsenal of different equipment to help you explore. Once kitted out, you can then go poking back through the old areas. 9 Years of Shadows exploration isn’t too involved, mind. There was some backtracking to get upgrades but it was rarely necessary. Still, it did elicit the usual enjoyment where a previous impassable route suddenly becomes penetrable. Though one of the powers is to curl up and roll through a small tube. Perhaps taking the first half of ‘Metroidvania’ a touch literally?
Full Suit Europa
Let’s go back to that combat for a mo’. Layered on top of the simple mechanics is a weakness system. As you progress, you’ll gain different flavours of armour that correspond to different elements. Using the right armour against the right enemy will give a damage bonus as well as different traversal powers. Apino can help too, firing a blast that will destroy otherwise impenetrable enemies. It’s a nice system, allowing you to deal more damage over time without relying on any standard RPG elements. You can switch armour on the fly too, which 9 Years of Shadows uses to its advantage. Bosses will often force you to switch armour just to stay alive.
It’s used to its best effect in one boss: a giant mechanical chess set. Each piece has a different alignment and they’ll attack in their set pattern. You have to cut through them in order to bring down the king. It’s also nicely representative of 9 Years of Shadow‘s best attribute: its sense of style. The boss variety is fantastic. For every human boss there’s a giant mechanical spider or tangle of snakes. It doesn’t stretch to monster variety, sadly, as they are aggresively recycled but the art style makes up for it. The pixel art is gorgeous and is accompanied by lovely cutscenes.
If I sound like I’m gushing a bit, then you’re probably right. Still, I do have a list of gripes that are worth touching on. Possibly my biggest point is the painful lack of fast travel. With a thread of sidequests asking you to comb over every unexplored room in an area, the ability to zoom between save points would be appreciated. I know you want your world to feel big, 9 Years of Shadows, but trudging through easy, well explored rooms over and over is not enjoyable. It’s just wasting my time. As are the little unskippable cutscenes before bosses. You can skip dialogue, but not their intro. After a few deaths, it’s hard not to feel like they’re flipping me the bird.
Metroidvania In Miniature
The other big point is rather subjective: I found 9 Years of Shadows a touch too easy. It could be that years of gaming has finally paid off and I’m now the greatest gamer to ever live, but I doubt it. I suspect the problem lies with our squishy friend, Apino. He can be hugged to regain health and if you pass a basic QTE once damaged, you can recover full health. This snaps the difficulty of most enemies over your knee. The only real teeth come in when 9 Years of Shadows starts taking cues from bullet-hell shooters, with the final boss being particularly fond of this. As a result, the playtime is fairly short for the genre.
Still, those are mostly unimportant quibbles. My feelings towards 9 Years of Shadows can be summed up thus: it is the perfect entry level metroidvania. It follows the rulebook almost to a fault and doesn’t push the envelope. Instead, it is content with gilding and refining the envelope into something that is genuinely pleasant to play. It looks great, sounds great and, crucially, plays great. The small issues don’t get in the way and it left me with a smile on my face. It’s not going to set the world on fire and it leaves a tad too soon, but 9 Years of Shadows is a beautiful and engaging experience while it lasts.