Cyber Shadow Review

I remember when I first saw Cyber Shadow. It was the day of my flight to Boston for PAX East 2019, which was my first major game convention. Yacht Club Games has announced they were publishing Aarne “MekaSkull” Hunziker’s cybernetic ninja action game. I was writing for DualShockers at the time and was the writer assigned to meet with and cover Yacht Club Games’ final pair of Shovel Knight games and on March 27, 2019, Cyber Shadow was thrown into that mix as well. I am a die-hard fan of Yacht Club Games and was completely thrilled.

I was immediately hooked and became laser-focused on any and all Cyber Shadow announcements and updates. What attracted me toward Cyber Shadow the most wasn’t its retro-aesthetic, ninjas, or even Yacht Club Games themselves. It was the fact it was completely developed completely by Hunziker. There is something inspiring and fascinating about one-person development. You just have to look at the trailer and then you’ll think “one person did all of this?!” Granted, the music was done by Enrique Martin; Yacht Club Games came onboard as the publisher; there were QA testers and translators, but on the whole Cyber Shadow is Hunziker’s game. And after roughly seven years in developmentCyber Shadow is finally here.

Cyber Shadow is without a doubt the next big indie game. It is an expertly crafted action-platformer that stands with the best. The world of Mekacity and Shadow’s journey through it are woven together wonderfully where each element of the game comes together to elevate each other. Cyber Shadow is more than the sum of its parts and all of those parts alone add up to be quite a bit.

The moment-to-moment action is an absolute blast. Shadow has a wonderful jump that becomes second nature in a flash. Slashing the katana is swift and jumping is tight and has just enough reach. These two core mechanics are the cornerstones of Shadow’s moveset, keeping the controls down to just the D-pad and two buttons and, NES-style. Now you may completely remap the controls as you see fit (except for one particular action, but more on that below). On the whole, Cyber Shadow fully embraces the mantra of “simple to learn, difficult to master” in its controls.

Really, the whole game adheres to this mantra. You are constantly analyzing encounters, memorizing enemy patterns, and choosing how to approach them. Combined with precise platforming and you will face more than a handful of delicate scenarios that will test you over and over. You’ll get slightly further with each attempt, gritting your teeth and pushing on because you can see the next part of the level. And then you die in the next room to repeat it all again just to keep going. You end up mastering each section of the game overcoming all the obstacles Dr. Progen can throw at you.

There is more to master than side-slashing Shadow’s blade though. You’ll collect new skills and powers as you progress through Mekacity defeating its bosses and meditating at shrines. You’ll get shurikens, a down thrust, a dash, sprinting, and more. All these attack-based powers are tied to spirit power (SP), a small blue meter beneath your health. When you have spirit energy, these attacks have additional power and effects behind them. For example, when you slash upward form the ground, three fiery projectiles will fly up with your blade. If you are out of SP, you may still slash upward, but the projectiles and added oomph are gone. You don’t get to choose whether or not to use the SP either. If you have it and use an ability, the SP is consumed. This makes you think more about how and when to use those abilities.

One ability in particular I found more challenging to nail down than the rest was the parry. You can stop projectiles and send them back at enemies by pressing left or right on the D-pad right as they come at Shadow. The timing for this is tight, which I expect for a powerful counter. What I found frustrating was that I could not remap it to any particular button. The parry is tied movement. This meant I had to stand still or let off my forward movement just to press the direction again to parry. When you are flying through the air in a jump and can’t deflect a projectile or you let off the button to do so and land short of your intend platform, parrying becomes frustrating at times. I did enjoy mastering the parry over the course of the game, but found I couldn’t always use it when I wanted to. Maybe I could have tied L1 and R1 to left and right movement as well; you do have the option to map multiple buttons to the same action. This honestly didn’t occur to me until I started writing this paragraph, but I do wish I could have simply tied the action to parry to one button at will.

You can refill SP at checkpoint stations, if you unlock the perk for 50 points of essence, which is the currency of the game. It is solely used for unlocking perks at checkpoints. All of the essence you collect sticks with you after you die, so if you are having a difficult time with a scenario, you will be gradually accumulating more essence that you can use to unlock the ability to always refill SP at the checkpoint and to always start with whatever gadget the checkpoint has to off.

Gadgets are special weapons or tools that you either unlock at checkpoints or find within the world. What makes them interesting, outside of their actual properties, is that each item has its own three-hit health bar tied to your health. You may keep the item as long as you don’t get hit three times. Rather than tie it to some limited supply of energy or a timer, the only barrier between keeping or losing the item is getting better at the game. Thankfully, these items almost always help make tougher parts of the game easier, giving you an edge in combat to make it further into the level. Tied into the checkpoints and essence, you get help naturally through playing the game and it remains entirely optional to the player. If you don’t want gadgets or automatically refilled SP, you don’t have to purchase them. You have choice over how much help you like, which I much prefer to something like the Super Mario games that just do the level for you or grant you invincibility for the entire level. You are in control of your gameplay destiny here.

All of this combat and platforming leads to Cyber Shadow’s most enamoring element: the bosses. Each mid-level boss and final boss is unique and challenging. Their attacks and patterns demand attention as you weave and slash your way through them. No two bosses are the same, which is exciting. You never quite know what final challenge lies ahead, keeping you on your toes. The final boss, in particular, is expertly executed. The pacing is superb, the challenge is tuned just right, and the sense of accomplishment is absolute. I haven’t yelled at my TV like this—both every time I lost and when I finally won—in what feels like a very long time. Bravo Hunziker.

When I came into Cyber Shadow, I was expecting stand alone levels all segmented along a map. Part of this may have stemmed from playing it at PAX East 2019 where, understandably, the demo had individual chunks of levels for folks to play. While there is a map screen that shows chapter completion and allows you to teleport to any previously explored environment, Mekacity is actually one interconnected world. Most of the levels have one direction to go, helpfully directed by checkpoints, but occasionally there are branching paths that can lead to missing whole chapters/environments. In my initial run of the game, I completely missed chapter 7, but I never felt like I was strictly missing out on anything. The world is fleshed out and feels realized. I also noticed barriers that I couldn’t pass my first time through earlier levels. It wouldn’t be until toward the end of the campaign that I would unlock the skill needed to break down those barriers. It’s this wonderful combination of power-up based exploration with mostly linear level structure giving the right balance of incentive to replay levels and explore them fully.

Although, it didn’t take much to incentivize me to fully explore Mekacity, newfound power-ups or not, because of how sharp the ravaged city looks. Every inch of the screen is expertly detailed with crisp pixels in electric blues, neon purples, burnt oranges, and hotrod reds. Pixelated electricity crackles through dangerous surfaces as you jump and slash your way through  a demolished. desolate world. The entire game is cybernetic eye candy.

On a technical level, an 8-bit game has never looked better. The game runs at a full 4K HDR at 120 Hz loading instantaneously on my PS5’s SSD. The movement is fluid with colors that pop in HDR. And if the sharpest pixels aren’t your thing, you can turn on the CRT filter for that quintessential retro look. You can even turn on “bad wires” for an arguably more authentic 8-bit aesthetic. The screen is full of unique enemies, environmental details, and special effects that all make Mekacity feel richly dense. Cyber Shadow has all the benefits of modern hardware, which seems to have given Hunziker complete liberation to create their vision of war-torn sci-fi city.

The music is equally delightful. Enrique Martin’s chiptune soundtrack courses through Mekacity’s veins. It has an infectious rhythm to it that keeps you going. Your foot will tap and your head will bob as you slice and dice through your quest. Each tune and level feels perfectly matched, which makes a ton of sense given Hunziker’s comment on how the duo worked together to create the world of Mekacity.

“The gameplay and music discovered natural synergy together. Stages would inspire music, and music would inspire stages. For example, the docks and boat ride were born from a track that sounded like a boat chase, and the rest of the level grew from there.” – Hunziker in an interview with PlayStation.Blog

Cyber Shadow’s plot surprised me. It’s not a simple “defeat the evil doctor and save the girl” plot in the slightest. It’s a tale of dedication to one’s culture, beliefs, and friends. How obsession manifests itself, both emotionally and physically, to the point of absolution. There is brevity right when it is needed, as well as enough mystery to make you ask the right questions. While Mekacity may lie in ruins, the story of how it came to be that way is well told in the environment, computer logs, and the people you meet along the way. Bosses and allies are all a part of the story at large, enhancing the narrative, instead of just being a cool robot monster to fight. I was pleasantly engaged while I explored the city to its fullest.

Cyber Shadow looked like the image above when it started out as an idea in Hunziker’s mind in 2014. Nearly seven years later it has transformed into a gorgeous, colorful, action-platformer beast. When I started playing Cyber Shadow, all I could do was slash sideways and die a ton (my final death count was 399). By the end of the game, which took just over 10 hours, I was flying across the screen cutting down foes and expertly leaping toward what I knew would be the final battle. I think both Hunziker and Shadow’s journey go hand-in-hand. Starting small, unsure if this idea would even work out and ultimately turning into a tour de force of 8-bit action-platforming.