In the now very, VERY tired genre of Metroid/Castlevania-likes, there has been little to no true development over the last few years. Surely, there are examples of some very good ones, but none has really brought something substantially new. Mexican studio Halberd, however, might have just done that with their new release 9 Years of Shadows.
The game is set in a world that has been besieged by disease over the course of nine years, with most of its population dead and its color lost in the process. The protagonist, Europa, decides to take up arms and invade the castle that is seemingly the source of the plague.
Not long after setting foot there, she runs into a familiar by the name of Apino, and as soon as that happens, some color returns as she receives the power to cast light magic. With it and a host of other abilities she acquires during her journey, Europa hopes to save whatever is left of the world around her.
9 Years of Shadows wears its developer’s home country’s culture proudly. It’s easily one of the most colorful and gorgeous games I’ve played this year, and the way it mixes in music through the world building is awesome. Europa, who is a musician herself, quickly runs into other like-minded people, some of which act as upgrade stations where the relics she finds in the castle are put to good use buffing her stats.
And she’ll definitely need to get stronger because the game pulls no punches, especially during boss fights. Even though the general progression can be somewhat breezy, there are no checkpoints, so if you happen to perish at a particularly nasty fight, you’ll have to run back to it and watch cutscenes all over again that you happened to trigger since your last save.
That alone is my main nitpick with an otherwise positively enjoyable time playing 9 Years of Shadows. Its core mechanic of having you regain some of Europa’s light power with successful attacks makes it so it pays to stay on offense, because her HP is directly tied to that bar. That means if you spend too much by casting magic, you’ll only have a very limited number of hits you can take before dying.
Instead of having a level up system, 9 Years of Shadows relies on making your equipment stronger the further you get into the game. Color comes into play not only through the visuals, but by dictating what attacks you should be using depending on the enemy you are currently fighting. It’s a fluid dynamic that is put to fantastic use throughout the game, making every encounter feel unique and satisfying to get past.
Some of Europa’s armor, especially the golden variety, takes cues from cult classic anime like Saint Seiya, which is a strong bonus in my book. The visual variety overall is damn incredible, even more so considering the relatively small size of the team behind the game.
The same can be said about the music, a soothing mix of lounge music and jazzy tunes that serve to keep things smooth even during 9 Years of Shadows’ trickier sections. A lot can be said about restraint and careful measuring during the composition of a soundtrack, and it’s an aspect that’s at play in this game for sure.
Technically, the game runs well on Switch with only a few instances of slowdown. Thankfully long load times which are the curse of games like this and can get on anyone’s nerves are not present here. This is one of the slickest looking retro-inspired titles on the system, even more so in portable mode on an OLED model.
9 Years of Shadows obviously leans on the genre’s trademark mechanics, but it brings enough of its own to make it stand out from the rest. Its world alone is reason enough to give it a spin, but add in its creative balancing of combat and magic/health regen along with how the game deals with color and you’ve got something special that shouldn’t be missed even by the most veterans of players.