In a genre that is old as video games themselves, you would think that almost everything that could be explored and perfected with 2D platformers has been explored and perfected by now. However, this is decidedly not the case, as developers like Yacht Club Games keep pushing the genre forward with ingenious level design and gameplay mechanics. This time however, it’s not a Yacht Club-developed game that is now pushing the genre forward, but a Yacht Club-published game. Developed by Mechanical Head Studios, Cyber Shadow is the latest 2D platformer to prove that there is still so much life in this genre. The levels are vast and feature beautifully designed 8-bit pixel art. Enemies and their placements are creative and challenging, and a killer soundtrack helps it all come together to create an excellent gaming experience.
To start, I have to point out something that Cyber Shadow does extremely well—even though it didn’t need to for me to still give it the praise I otherwise would—and that is the story. Woven in-between the excellent gameplay is an emotional story that can genuinely tug at your heartstrings, told through short cinematics at pivotal points in the game and personal logs found throughout the world of Mekacity. You play as Shadow, the sole surviving member of his clan who had sworn to protect Mekacity. The story begins when L-Gion, your little robot companion, rescues you from being captured by Dr. Progen and you set off to try and save as many of your clan as possible, as well as the clan’s leader, known only as The Master. As the story unfolds, you discover how Dr. Progen was driven mad in his attempt to save his daughter’s life, and Mekacity is now overrun with his army of synthetics in the wake of Dr. Progen’s lust for more power to achieve his goal.
Running alongside this tragedy is also a love story between Shadow and the Master. Their bond plays out over the few cinematics that are included in the game and became a driving force for me, wanting to make it to the next story beat and see what happens next. Thinking back on the story, it isn’t something I haven’t seen in one or more forms, but it is told so beautifully—not just with the cinematics, but with every bit of writing. The logs also give you a clearer idea of how this all came to be from Dr. Progen’s perspective and those who worked close to him, further emphasizing his tragic fall, while the messages left in the Ethos from your fallen clan members add lore and depth to the world and who your clan is. On top of that, the dialogue from the characters you meet across ten chapters was still able to have lighthearted and comedic moments. Everything else about the game is so good, it could’ve had no story at all and I still would love it. That is thankfully not the case, and we’re all better for it.
Far and away, though, it is the gameplay where Cyber Shadow shines brightest. The platforming is punishingly precise, which can make your initial run through of a particular area either a reminder that you are a gaming god with reflexes that one-hit-kill spikes quake in fear of, or it’s at least 20 minutes of you dying on the same damn jump that you just can’t seem to time properly. I’m referring specifically to how the levels are laid out, and not just enemy placement. Solo developer Aarne Hunziker conceptualized a vast world within Cyber Shadow, and the more you play the clearer that becomes. Each level is far larger than it has any need to be for a platformer of this caliber. None of them overstayed their welcome by any means; in fact, I was so overjoyed to look at my save file returning to continue my playthrough and find out I was already close to two hours in and still about midway through Chapter 2. Knowing I had so much more ninja-slashing fun in store as I looked forward on the world map made me extremely excited not just for that first playthrough, but also the thought of replaying it all and digging as deep as I can into each level.
I will admit that the more difficult the levels got, I did find myself wanting an extra checkpoint at times just to not backtrack through all the same bits—only to die at the really difficult one right before the next checkpoint. I appreciated their length so much, though, because whenever you unlock a new ability by absorbing the spirit of one of your fallen clan members, they each give a new way to maneuver in Mekacity. The abilities themselves are the same abilities we see in almost every platformer (double jump, dash, etc.), but their execution was more complicated and took more time to perfect. The length of the levels is such a gift because you’ll end up mastering one mechanic just as they introduce another; they’re paced out perfectly so that your skill in controlling Shadow by the end of the game feels so fluid, like you’ve entered a trance that could appear to be divine intervention to anyone watching. In a platformer, moving around the world needs to feel solid and fun to play, and those are two feelings that Cyber Shadow succeeds in presenting at every ledge.
Of course, being a synthetic cyber ninja means you’re capable of more than just jumping from one wall to the next. The sword at your side implies that you will at some point need it—and boy, do you need it. The levels are crawling with enemies, many of which will hit you in such succession that before you know what’s happening, three robots are flying straight at you while a slow moving terrestrial robot creeps behind you, ready to “catch” you on your blowback with a few gently lobbed and deadly projectiles and suddenly you’ve imploded. It almost feels unfair, especially towards the more difficult end levels, though you have many tools at your disposal to even the odds.
There are a total of eight different special items to find and use throughout Cyber Shadow, each with their own benefits—and some more game-breaking than others. The Scavenger, for example, is a small orb which circles you constantly and transforms any projectile your way into a spirit point, allowing you to continue using enhanced special attacks and your trusty shuriken. The Swag Blade, which was by far my favorite, is a spinning saw that constantly swings around you, clearing out anything in its path. Should it swing directly in front of you at the right time, you can even launch it with your blade straight ahead at your enemy’s unsuspecting face. Both of these items are very fun to use, and if you don’t take any damage, they have the potential to break the game’s difficulty. The balance comes from the fact that you can only be hit thrice while holding an item, after which it breaks and you’ll have to search for a new one or spawn a new one at the next checkpoint.
The checkpoints themselves also play an interesting part in regards to combat, as the currency of gold coins you pick up from fallen enemies allows you to purchase the ability for checkpoints to be fully activated with all their available features. A fully-activated checkpoint means after each death, you start with your health and spirit points replenished along with whatever item is available at that particular checkpoint. If you have enough cash to activate each one, then it’s an easy choice to activate them all—but allowing it to burn a hole in your pocket can potentially mean you reach the next checkpoint just before the level’s boss and you’re now unable to activate each of the features available leaving, you seriously handicapped in regards to how much damage you can deal. While this was rarely the case in my playthrough, it did give me pause at a few checkpoints to ensure that I would be able to deal with whatever bigger, badder robot was to come next.
Your special attacks, which I mentioned earlier, are enhanced with the consumption of spirit points–they’re also part of how you navigate Mekacity. Shurikens let you press buttons and activate doors you otherwise couldn’t reach, your upwards shot of flames lets you deal with any obstructions to your path above you, your down strike deals an explosive amount of damage while revealing paths below you, and your dash can be enhanced with spirit points, letting you dish out enough hurt to finish off a boss or difficult enemy in the blink of an eye while also speeding through a level. Dashing through five enemies in a row without losing scarcely any altitude will never not feel incredibly cool.
The combat and the platforming are interwoven so well with these mechanics, and as I said earlier, you have the time to really learn each one through enemy encounters that encourage you to use them creatively to overcome Dr. Progen’s massive synthetic army. You’ll face off against some common enemies that can be found all throughout Mekacity, and some unique to certain levels that only reappear in the very end, along with everything else being thrown at you. The variety of the synthetics you face always keeps the combat feeling fresh and challenging at every stage, and even though your damage output drastically increases, you never learn how to take a hit any better than you can at the start. Even with a fully upgraded health bar, you can still find it dwindling quickly if you’re not careful—but with how your own abilities improve over the course of the game, your inherent lack of defense only curbs you towards the exhilarating feeling you get when executing offensive tactics perfectly. Absolutely everything about the combat is as fine-tuned as the platforming itself, leaving the only last possible point of disappointment being the boss battles.
The boss battles are not in any way disappointing. You’ll slash the wires of many bosses and mini-bosses throughout the ten chapters, and they are all as well crafted as the rest of the game. My far and away favourite is the Mekadragon, though all the souped-up synthetics are all extremely worthy opponents who can kick your ass just as easily as you can theirs. All of them are visually entertaining, as well as being fun to fight, and are the delightful cherry on top of each level. I don’t really want to say too much on them for fear of spoiling the experience—I’ll only say they are a wonderful extension of a very well-tuned combat system, and that they can keep surprising you even after multiple runs at them.
Cyber Shadow is the quintessential 2D retro-style ninja platformer. Aarne Hunziker has absolutely outdone himself with this title in every sense of the word. I genuinely don’t have anything negative to say about it, and even the one thing I did have a slight problem with I wouldn’t change (that being checkpoint frequency). The difficulty can feel frustrating at times, but it is in no way insurmountable, and honestly just gives it more of a retro vibe. Cyber Shadow excels in every way through its beautiful presentation, a soundtrack that slaps harder with each new song, a touching story, and absolutely thrilling gameplay. This is an absolute must play for any fans of 2D platformers.