9 Years of Shadows Review - Screenshot 1 of 6
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

The hallowed Metroidvania has gone from an original, curiously enticing one-off concept, to a highly consumable once-monthly product fit for devouring at speed. If you’re now, as we are, extremely seasoned in the format pioneered by Symphony of the Night in 1997, you’ll likely rip through 9 Years of Shadows like a '46 Ford through a DeLorean. Ergo, like tinfoil.

Developed by Mexican indie outfit Halberd Studios, it would, in our opinion, have made better literary sense to be dubbed ‘9 Years of Shadow’ - but then we're hopeless grammar Nazis because, it’s like, our job 'n' stuff. The story goes that a realm has been afflicted by a nine-year plague and, with it, the colour sapped from the land. Europa, the female protagonist, has watched friend and family pass to a sinister sickness while she somehow stands immune. She then decides to grab a weapon, don some armour, and head into an evil castle to destroy the core, as it were.

9 Years of Shadows Review - Screenshot 2 of 6
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Unlike most Metroidvanias, Europa doesn’t start fully powered up and then lose her possessions, but rather begins at her vanilla phase, only able to backward dash and attack. The game follows a typical process of progression: acquire armour with properties; acquire ally with secondary properties; start to unravel your surroundings; explore map bridges; acquire additional moves to reach previously inaccessible areas, and so forth. If you spot a suspiciously placed save room, that usually means there’s a boss fight just around the corner; likewise, if you discover a power-up relic, then you’re probably going to be tasked with using it in some way the instant you snatch it from its glowing plinth.

What sets 9 Years of Shadows apart are its original and thoughtfully implemented ideas. Tonally, it’s interesting, its Mexican development origins having an artistic quality that lands differently to something like Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth and other Japanese works. There's a vast, cavernous feel to the layout, and a dark, magical inner world of towering, twisted sculptures, writhing foliage, crashing internal oceans, and cascading waterfalls running through its apparatus.

Europa is joined directly after the prologue by a floating teddy bear called Apino. In a world of Greek god references and a heady sense of pathos, he's the one thing that hard breaks the thematic schema. He is, however, a solid gameplay attribute, firing projectiles that have specific uses in breaking enemy armour, frozen doorways, and switches of a certain colour, all while bringing a nice slash, slash, fire cadence to the action.

The health and heal properties of 9 Years of Shadows also set it apart from the norm. Soak a couple of big hits and your life bar will be all but done, but it's quickly recovered by simply striking enemies with your weapon. If you’re one hit from death, you can retreat a moment and hold down the shoulder button to call on Apino, who will refill your health with a hug. There are also attributes to be acquired that, when near to death, offer a chance to regain health with a perfectly timed button press — a neat idea that encourages momentary reflex and feels good to get right. We found the combat risk, reward and heal balance to be well established, even if the campaign felt rather easy overall and the enemies somewhat basic.

Another aspect we were happy to see gone is levelling up, removing the temptation to grind. Instead, it’s down to the armour, skills, weaponry and currency you acquire to make you more threatening, and this too is nicely arranged so that you’re always just around the corner from the next bonus. It feels good to keep fleshing out your skills, finding new relics and critical items, and using them to carve through the game. In each major area you can visit a theatre to purchase upgrades, and a forge to enhance your armour, adding another layer that ensures the player's reward feedback is constantly stoked.

9 Years of Shadows Review - Screenshot 3 of 6
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Key to Europa’s navigation of the dark and exotic sub-scape are her armour changes. Different armour traces her in different colours, gracing her with a different weapon and combo attack. If an enemy is lit in blue, for example, you simply cycle to your correspondingly coloured armour to ensure your attacks have maximum effect. Certain armour is required to enter new areas, like Gaia, allowing the traversal of poison-filled tributaries, or Helios, for areas requiring heat protection. Halberd Studios have also cleverly programmed armour switches to engage automatically when required, meaning Europa will instantly don, for example, the Poseidon armour the minute she enters a body of water. Additionally, new armour offers interesting sub-forms. The mermaid form, for instance, allows Europa to swim at speed and leap across channels of water, scale waterfalls, and navigate underwater areas in altogether different ways.

9 Years of Shadows is a strong effort. If you eat Metroidvanias for breakfast, consider this another hearty sausage alongside your hash browns. It’s a large game that's well-formed and correctly paced. If it suffers any imperfections, it's in things like animation, which lacks a certain fluidity and feels static in places. The initial swim animation, before Europa can dive, is literally no frames, just a frozen sprite skating the surface. We didn’t like the run animation or backdash much, either, and some of the enemies feel composed of animation shortcuts rather than genuine hand-drawn frames. This pseudo-artistry extends, in places, to the stylings of its various enclaves, which may or may not be true pixel art at all. And, while generally the environments are very nice, they are repetitive under scrutiny, using a lot of palette swapping and element rearrangements for new areas.

9 Years of Shadows Review - Screenshot 4 of 6
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Additionally, while combat feels solid enough, with basic strikes able to be combo’d into your slower, heavy attack, the enemies don’t offer a huge amount of strategic variety outside of armour switching to colour match, and are fairly easy, almost to the point of being lacklustre. Instead, the difficulty sits almost entirely with the excellently devised and rightly challenging boss battles, which require deft reflex and usage of all your tools. Some of them will take several attempts to figure out, and are enjoyable to overcome.

The music is very nice: a kind of soothing, jazz lounge arrangement of atmospheric tones and soft beats that capture the evocative surroundings. It is, however, quite samey throughout, with only a few specific points where there was any kind of prominent tonal switch-up. It blends well with the visual design but doesn’t offer up anything you’ll be humming once you hit the Switch’s sleep button. We were perhaps expecting something more from Michiru Yamane, Japan's god-like composer responsible for Rocket Knight Adventures and Symphony of the Night, who not only contributed to the soundtrack, but also appears as an in-game NPC.

9 Years of Shadows Review - Screenshot 5 of 6
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

For some, however, the most heinous of infractions will be the frame drops, even in docked mode. They’re not action-breaking, they’re not overly prominent, but they’re most certainly there, and we can’t for the life of us understand why.

Conclusion

Halberd Studios has crafted a Metroidvania with a really encouraging number of unique elements. We have no issue in declaring it A Good Game™ and a great time thanks to its careful crafting and implementation of a number of original ideas that elevate the gameplay, rather than stifle it. It is just another Metroidvania at heart, yes, and it doesn’t revolutionise the genre; but, while there are a few scrappy bits where you can see a thinning of the budget compared to works by larger studios, it holds its own as an inventive, pretty, and consistently enjoyable adventure.