REVIEW: 9 Years of Shadows is a back-to-basics Metroidvania about healing with art
We live in a world where the heroes of our games are plucky, full of (often unearned) confidence, and assertive. But the heroes of our real world can look much different. And it's a meaningful experience to see them represented in games like 9 Years of Shadows.
I've not been shy about the fact that I suffer from depression and anxiety. That the art form of gaming serves as a place for me to heal from self-doubt, either by confronting issues in a virtual landscape or simply escaping from them for a short time. I never expect more than that escapism when I start any new game, but what I found in Halberd Studios' debut release, a beautiful pixel-art Metroidvania called 9 Years of Shadows, was a surprising reflection of myself in its protagonist and an even more surprising place to do some healing. Well and beyond that and a few hiccups, I found a pretty damn good game in it too.
Just the Facts
Developer: Halberd Studios
Publisher: Freedom Games
Platform(s): PC*, Nintendo Switch *platform reviewed on
Release Date: March 27, 2023
Review key provided by publisher.
After a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised over $107,000 and a partnership with the ever-present Freedom Games, Halberd Studios brings us their debut release, 9 Years of Shadows. Based out of Guadalajara, Halberd had spent years assisting other studios by producing commercials and assets for other IPs and products, and finally are ready to bring their full creative force to something completely their own in 9 Years of Shadows.
Teaming up with legendary composers Michiru Yamane (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night), Manami Matsumae (Mega Man), and Norihiko Hibino (Metal Gear Solid 2), their team had all the pieces ready to produce something special, and they certainly did here.
This Metroidvania full of ancient magic and corrupted castles follows the story of Europa, who is one of the only people left to confront a curse that drained the color from the world and spread death in its wake. Orphaned by the curse and left weakened in its wake, Europa spends nine years training in the color-bled world in order to eventually wander into the towering Talos Castle where it all started and put an end to the evil.
After a failed confrontation with the shadow demon Belial, the architect of the curse, Europa is saved by, of all things, a magical teddy bear named Apino. One hug later and her life-threatening wounds disappear and the color returns. With her new magical partner at her side, who is particularly equipped to fight back against the dark energies of the castle, Europa finds new confidence and begins her journey to save her world properly.
Europa suffers from self-doubt and self-hate, frustrated with the world falling around her and trying to understand how she was left standing while others have fallen. She questions her chances at making a change, especially after her immediate failures. Other characters face their own issues, letting their ambition grow out of control and seeing the dark pulls of the castle drag them down. Watching all of them heal and learn their own worth and ability, because of their collaborative power and surprising friendships... was genuinely heartwarming.
The story is light and the game doesn't force-feed narrative to you too much — with most of it delivered in the short loading screens between new sections of the castle and in short back-and-forths before boss fights — but what is here is surprising.
It's powerful to see a hero constantly question themself and not wear layers of unearned confidence, instead needing to gain their conviction through the aid of those around them. Healing past traumas, issues of self-worth, and general malaise in the face of the curse are themes at the forefront of 9 Years of Shadows. And the healing qualities of art itself are emphasized here.
Michiru Yamane of Symphony of the Night fame played a prominent role in this game's development with a particular goal in mind. Yamane has been a supporter of the healing potential of music in recent years and asked that the game reflect that power, which led to artists being put at the forefront of the adventure (including Yamane and Hibino playing roles in the story itself) and the game's soundtrack being tuned to 432 Hz, a frequency that is 8 Hz lower than the 440 Hz reference tone for most forms of music, which she said is supposed to promote physical and spiritual healing.
We can't speak to the validity of those claims, but to see an idea implemented practically and thematically, and given emphasis in all ways... that's something we can get behind. As critics, we can say this though... the music is all pretty amazing to listen to. Covering a ton of styles, from thumping drum and bass tracks to haunting ballads with melodic piano leading the way, 9 Years of Shadow's soundtrack feels modern and classic all at once. And with the number of guest composers on board, it's amazing how cohesive the music all ends up.
Music and art weave into the gameplay for incredibly strong theming and create an easy-to-follow through-line that keeps this intriguing story from losing control, especially with its interesting mix of concepts and mythologies (including Japanese culture, Greek gods, and Viking lore).
Before we move onto the actual Metroidvania action of 9 Years of Shadows, we want to shout out the great "casual" representation on display in the game's story too. There are wheelchair-using musicians, queer characters, and representations of mental illness, all casually introduced and set into the world. It was amazing to see this representation included with no pomp and circumstance.
"Nowadays, you see independent teams trying to reinvent the wheel... Halberd Studios keeps it simple and is all the better for it."
9 Years of Shadows is as straightforward as a Metroidvania can get and I love it for that. Nowadays, you see independent teams trying to reinvent the wheel, trying to create the biggest genre-bending experiences possible. Halberd Studios keeps it simple and is all the better for it. Fight, explore, unlock abilities, and revisit all the places you couldn't access the first time through.
The main gimmick surrounds colors and the elements they represent. Yellow = Lightning. Green = Earth. Blue = Water. Red = Fire. As Europa travels through the castle, she'll find armor sets dedicated to these elements and will unlock abilities in both combat and traversal for each element to get through the castle. For example, the blue Poseidon suit will help you survive underwater and eventually unlocks a mermaid form that allows you to swim up water currents.
In combat, enemies have elemental alignments that dictate what they're weak against and which armors they can do extra damage to. You can suss these out with a glance, as enemies will have a single color outline designating their weakness. With the ability to flip through your armor sets on the fly, and even automated switching when Europa ends up in different environmental hazards, it's super simple and intuitive to mow through enemies with the right elemental toolset and not have to worry about making those swaps as you go. Especially toward the end, when all four elements are unlocked, there is a great flow to swapping between the suits, using their unique traversal abilities on the fly, and scooting through rooms super quickly that just feels right.
Combat on the whole is pretty simple though, especially once you get some upgrades under your belt. For one thing, your actual combat capability consists of a basic three-hit combo with Europa's halberd, an unlockable charge attack, and... not much else. The elemental consideration makes that basic system seem just a bit more involved, but more often than not I found myself able to plow through enemies regardless of their strengths or weaknesses. A letdown considering how interesting the elemental system seems at first glance.
Europa's health system involves two pieces: her light meter, a rechargeable bar of "armor" that also serves as the ammo for Apino's ranged attack; and the health behind that, two diamonds that can only be damaged once your light bar is depleted. Once those diamonds are cracked, it's Game Over.
The light bar can be recharged at any point, either by staying safe and holding a button to trigger a "lullaby" where Apino hugs and partially recharges you, or with an unlockable "Gears of War active reload"-esque recharge minigame that triggers the second your bar hits 0, that when done right can fully recharge you.
"Boss fights feel heavily de-emphasized in this era of gaming and it's great to see a team still so capable of pulling them off. And they're the game's one source of true difficulty."
Because of this, it's pretty easy to keep yourself healthy when wandering the halls of the castle and facing basic enemies. If you're playing smart, it's unlikely that you'll find many challenges outside of boss fights... but it's fun enough to blow through the varied enemies. And to me, Metroidvanias aren't really about complex combat.
They're about exploration above all else.
Exploring 9 Years of Shadow's towering castle is a dream. With its vertical structure and great theming across its biomes, it stands as a worthy addition to the Metroidvania setting hall of fame. From the element-focused offsets in the middle of the tower to the horrifying basement with its spooky side bosses and derelict machinery to the oddly upsetting abandoned orphanage in the upper section, there's lots to wander through and lots hiding on each floor. Upgrades, sidebosses, lore rooms. If you're the type to purposefully avoid the obvious path forward or bash at any wall to look for wall chicken, 9 Years of Shadows rewards you.
And it all looks so good. From the flowing pixel animation of Europa's dress in her idle animation to the unique look of each of her elemental armor suits to the full anime-inspired opening cutscene and portrait work... Halberd Studios artists have just as much impact here as their magical counterparts in game. And with the game's aforementioned hodgepodge of cultures, the consistent art style helps to unify the experience.
But, sadly, it ain't all good.
One of the biggest issues I had with 9 Years of Shadows is one I hope will be gone soon after launch: crashes and bugs. Across my 8-10 hours trying to beat back this world's curse, I crashed probably 8-10 times. What started as a light frustration grew over time, before ultimately becoming an issue that was worth a deduction in score. You see, the game's crashes exacerbate another issue. 9 Years of Shadows has no checkpointing at all. Dying takes you back to your last save and no progress is saved. No secrets are left unlocked, no upgrades left upgraded... just complete progress reset. That's fine when it's in my control. Not so much when it's because of a crash.
One boss would crash the game every time I died. That meant a full reset of the game to get back in, and the save room was a bit of a travel away from the boss itself, which only made it more frustrating. And to cap it off, after finally beating the game's multi-staged and decently difficult final boss, I crashed in the middle of the final cutscene... which meant going through that fight at least four or five more times before I could call the game complete.
In its current state, there are clearly some technical issues to iron out. The crashes feel random and unavoidable and directly get in the way of your progress several times over. If you're reading this a while after review, there's a chance these early technical issues will be resolved by the time you get your hands on it — so, consider adding .5 to my final numerical score. But know what you're getting into if you're hopping in on day one.
But you know I never like ending reviews on a bad note, so let me finish out by praising the hell out of Halberd Studios' boss design. From the minibosses to the big multi-stage boss fights that hide ability unlocks at the end of each biome, these bosses are just so clever.
No boss fight is like any other. There are clever patterns to learn and unique gimmicks to each of the bigger fights. One of my favorites was a chess-themed boss, whose attacks were based on the movement ability of certain chess pieces. Boss fights feel heavily de-emphasized in this era of gaming and it's great to see a team still so capable of pulling them off. And they're the game's one source of true difficulty.
9 Years of Shadows is a straightforward Metroidvania with some incredible theming, unique narrative lessons to pass on, and healing — or, at the very least, beautiful — music. It keeps things simple, sometimes to a fault, but manages to keep one thing at the forefront from beginning to end. Fun.
It's a shame then that, at least at launch, the game's smattering of technical issues get in the way of letting its real art shine.
Video Games Are Good and 9 Years of Shadows is . . . GLITCHY BUT GOOD. (7.5/10)
+ back-to-basics metroidvania gameplay works extremely well, pixel art and soundtrack are brilliant, an emotional story that shows the healing power of art and friendship
- bugs and crashes aplenty that force you back through content, no checkpoints can cause lots of backtracking, elemental abilities aren't as well implemented in combat and it can all be a bit easy
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