Metroidvanias are one of my favorite subgenres. The joy of using new abilities to progress in an interconnected map is truly one of my favorite things in gaming. 9 Years of Shadows looked quite promising due to its detailed pixel art and obvious reverence for the genre. Unfortunately, it lags quite far behind its contemporaries, delivering a highly linear experience with practically no backtracking, a short runtime, a tiny bestiary, and an annoying central combat mechanic. That being said, the game is competent and isn’t necessarily boring, but it simply doesn’t offer what fans of the subgenre will expect from it.
9 Years of Shadows tells the story of Europa, a young woman whose family (and most of the world) was destroyed by a curse. She ventures to the old orphanage where it all began to try and figure out how to save the world. There’s no good reason to care about Europa, as she’s barely characterized and the narrative is so generic that it hardly feels like it matters. There’s honestly barely any plot until the last hour of the game, and even then that plot is hard to care about. You also have to sit through a lengthy, dull elevator sequence every time Europa boards one, as she slowly monologues about something that you likely won’t care about.
The game is only five hours long and that five hours is filled with repetitive, unimaginative corridors and the same few enemies again and again. Europa finds armor that gives her new abilities, but these can almost never be used to find goodies while backtracking. Instead you just use them to find the way forward. The armors sort of appear to have different attacks, but they all control almost identically to the point that it barely matters which you use. The game also often switches between them automatically, depending on what types of environment they’re suited to.
Each armor has an element associated with it. Using that element against enemies that are outlined in its color will do extra damage, but the enemies are mostly so easy to dispatch that you don’t have to do this. Abilities include turning into a mermaid to swim, gliding slowly while falling alongside using an explosion, and turning into a ball thing like Samus to enter holes in the wall. The controls are quite good, at least. The combat itself is very similar to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night‘s, aside from the fact that Europa can strike upward. She also has Alucard’s backdash, which is even more underwhelming here than it was there. There’s no reason to have it instead of a dodge of some sort.
Enemy behavior is extremely simple and most of them pose no threat. The platforming can be challenging on occasion and it’s there that 9 Years of Shadow is at its best. But then there’s the out-of-place reload mechanic. If you’ve played Gears of War or Nioh, it’s one of those “time a button press to instantly refill your stamina/ammo” things. Europa is joined by a small teddy bear ghost that allows her to shoot projectiles.
These projectiles use up stamina, but the kicker is that stamina is also Europa’s shield. When you get hit, it decreases. When it runs out, you need to press the button at the right time during a reload to instantly refill your stamina. If you miss, you have to manually reload, which puts Europa in danger. This is all well and good save for the fact that Europa can only get hit two-to-four times after her stamina runs out. For regular enemies, this turns the game into a cakewalk. For bosses, it takes simple fights and ratchets up the artificial difficulty to obnoxious levels.
It’s infuriating to have to redo one of 9 Years of Shadows‘ annoying boss fights from the start because you missed a single reload. It made me dread the boss battles. I simply feel that this mechanic in conjunction with the tiny amount of health was a bad decision. Europa starts able to take just two hits but you can find notes around the map that will let you increase this. But there are only two health upgrades in the whole game. You can also increase your stamina meter with notes as well, which is mostly what the upgrades focus on.
The armors can all be upgraded a single time each, but doing this seems mostly pointless. You’ll find musicians scattered around the map that offer “side quests” that exclusively task you with fighting one or two easy minibosses. Completing these grants you light fragments for a late-game upgrade, but you can’t actually unlock this upgrade unless you find every single one of the collectibles, which makes it annoying to get. I missed three, so I couldn’t get it. Regardless, you can really only use the upgrade on the final boss, so it’s not worth the effort no matter what. Plus you’ll need to grind currency to even afford it. It’s another bad decision.
9 Years of Shadows isn’t bad, but it is horribly underwhelming. Between the dull level design, easy combat, artificial difficulty during boss battles, and complete lack of backtracking, I just didn’t have a good time with this one. It’s pretty to look at and controls well, but it’s a purely perfunctory experience that doesn’t do much to make for an enticing experience. Play Vernal Edge instead.