Gorgeous pixel-art Metroidvania, 9 Years of Shadows by Halberd Studios and Freedom Games is a tremendously good game.
9 Years of Shadows tells the story of Europa, a noble warrior woman on a quest to venture into the robotic fortress Talos and destroy the corruption coming from there that has, quite literally, robbed the land of color. Having nothing left to lose, Europa decides to attempt what many others have died trying to do, and ventured into the mysterious fortress.
Europa is not alone on her quest however. While inside the giant she befriends Apino, a cute floating bear who seems to possess magical abilities that can restore color and replenish the health of his allies, as well as being able to provide a shield. Which is good, because Talos is dangerous, full of roaming monsters and enemies.
Apino is not your only aid in 9 Years of Shadows either. Talos has been home to many civilizations over the years, and as you traverse the living fortress you will find elemental armors, relics of these civilizations which will gift you unique traversal mechanics and attacks. A mermaid form to travel up waterfalls, or an earth themed one to travel through hidden underground tunnels, and so forth.
Europa will also come across musicians in Talos. Specifically the guest composers of the game, Michiru Yamane (Castlevania), Manami Matsumae (Mega Man), and Norihiko Hibino (Metal Gear Solid), represented as NPCs for her to find and gain aid from. As one might guess from such prolific names being brought in for an indie game, music is very, very important to 9 Years of Shadows, meant to bridge the gameplay and story with a moving, emotional soundtrack. You will even collect musical notes, allowing you to perform a healing lullaby to restore your health.
With these tools and her trusty halberd Europa will venture into the dark depths of Talos to face the source of the corruption, unraveling the mysteries of the place and world as she slowly brings color back to her land.
In terms of writing and characters, 9 Years of Shadows is a very good game. Europa is an excellently well handled protagonist, and you never doubt her conviction or her competence. And the NPCs are all likewise well handled, providing an interesting and engaging cast of characters for Europa to bump into along her quest. Add the mystery of someone literally stealing the color from the world outside of Talos and you have a great experience to be had.
We had a rare opportunity to ask the developers some questions about the game. When asked about Europa’s unique design they said “Europa was inspired by a lot of characters from movies and tv shows we liked from the 90’s like Asuka from Evangelion, Saori from Saint Seiya and various characters from Ghibli films. There is some Eric Lecarde and Samus in there too.”
As you can see from the art above, the 90’s anime inspiration shines through bright and clear in 9 Years of Shadows. And more than that, it is just a downright gorgeous game, a peak example of pixel art.
9 Years of Shadows is the most gorgeous pixel art game I’ve played in a while. In all honesty, it’s one of the prettiest games I’ve ever played, pixel art or otherwise, Indie or AAA. Everything is lovely to look at, clear and easy to make out, and aesthetically consistent.
This does, admittedly, come with the caveat of some serious performance struggles on less powerful computers (though by all accounts the Switch port works just fine). Pixel art does not equal low processing demands unfortunately, but the beauty of the visuals and the music makes it worth the sacrifice.
9 Years of Shadows plays about how you’d expect a solid, tightly designed side-scrolling Metroidvania to play. Gameplay is creative in the elemental armors, but easily manageable and simple to wrap your head around once you’ve had some time to play around with them.
Nothing here is groundbreaking, but everything here is well executed and tight. The main focuses of the gameplay that make it stand out are Apino (the aforementioned ghostly teddy bear) and the elemental armor, which is quite special. When asked about the armor and when they had been worked into the game, developers said “The elemental part of the gameplay was there from the beginning and was inspired by Capcom’s Demon’s Crest.”
Ultimately 9 Years of Shadows is a deeply solid and well constructed Metroidvania, well made enough to serve as both a solid entry-point to the subgenre and a good new experience for old hats.
When we asked the developers what their favorite part of the game was, the response we got was “My favorite part of the game is how much it has improved with time. Most of the team had never opened Unity before or knew anything about pixel art or project management when we started. I’m just insanely proud of their growth and happy that I was able to share such an emotional journey with them.”
And, yeah, they should be proud. This is a tremendously good game, and if you’re at all a fan of Metroidvanias, pixel art or otherwise, I cannot recommend it enough. The gameplay is solid, the characters and writing are good, the music is lovely, and did I mention that it’s gorgeous? Because it is. It’s available on Steam, GOG, and the Switch, so don’t waste any time. If you’re a fan of these kinds of games, 9 Years of Shadows is something you won’t want to miss!
Images and review copy courtesy of Halberd Studios and Freedom Games
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