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'9 Years of Shadows' Review: Symphony of the Light

Europa, the protagonist of <em>9 Years of Shadows</em>, her trusty halberd, and her floating teddy bear companion.
Freedom Games
Europa, the protagonist of 9 Years of Shadows, her trusty halberd, and her floating teddy bear companion.

Metroid and Castlevania pioneered 2D action platformers, and now any game that resembles them gets labeled with an inescapable portmanteau — the "metroidvania." It seems like dozens come out a year — most from independent studios.

But while it doesn't completely reinvent the formula, 9 Years of Shadows, out now on PC, shines in all the core gameplay mechanics that matter: from its character progression, to its tight controls, to its creative enemy design, and even to its platforming and puzzles.

For a genre notorious for brutal difficulty, I particularly enjoyed the game's forgiving combat. You have very limited health, but you're graced by a shield bar that doubles as ammo for a projectile attack. Should you exhaust that bar, you'll become vulnerable, but the game gives you two ways to recover.

You can escape and recharge by hugging your adorable teddy-bear sidekick (yes you read that right!), but you can also time a button press just right when you lose your shield bar to immediately get some back (like an "active reload"). This creates an interesting push and pull where sometimes you may actually choose to take damage when you're prepared to trigger the healing reaction.

When damage would deplete your shield bar, you can avoid health loss by pulling the trigger at the right moment.
/ Freedom Games
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Freedom Games
When damage would deplete your shield bar, you can avoid health loss by pulling the trigger at the right moment.

9 Years of Shadows also employs a quick armor-swapping mechanic that allows you to deal different elemental damage to enemies or utilize different movement abilities. Outside of battles, these mechanics give depth to the platforming and exploration puzzles throughout the castle.

A bright spot for metroidvanias

Beyond the gameplay, exploring the castle takes you on a journey through themes of childhood loss, loneliness, and the healing power of art. The visual style and music aren't just beautiful — they're core to the game's plot. You meet stranded artists who help you or invite you on side-missions, and the big bad curse you're here to stop literally sucks the color out of the world around you.

Explore stunning environments with moves unlocked by new armor types.
/ Freedom Games
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Freedom Games
Explore stunning environments with moves unlocked by new armor types.

While it's quite polished, the game shares drawbacks common to the metroidvania genre. Save points can be too far from a boss. You'll miss a hint for where to go next, and end up wandering off course. But these challenges are arguably the flip-side to what makes the game enjoyable. Good exploration means getting lost sometimes, and moving too easily throughout the castle would get boring.

All things considered (#NPR), 9 Years of Shadows is an approachable pickup for anyone interested in a light and charming metroidvania. If you want some colorful and thoughtful action in your life, this one's for you.

James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this story contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ben Cart