Welcome to Save State, where the grass is always greener. Speaking of green, have you ever imagined a game that revolves around a world without color? No, not Paper Mario: Color Splash. No, not Lost Sphear. No, not Okami, either. Okay, okay, I get it, it’s just that in the last couple weeks I picked up a title that caught my eye largely because of how attractive its pixel art was. When I saw the trailer for 9 Years of Shadows, and the protagonist did a Sailor Moon transformation sequence into a set of golden armor a la Saint Seiya, and I knew I had to try it. I downloaded the title, and shortly thereafter found out I was going to have to drive my wife to get a variety of medical procedures done, so I passed the time by playing this while waiting in the car.
9 Years of Shadows is a 2D pixel art Metroidvania, or as a friend and I are trying to popularize, a labyrinthine platformer. You venture across a wide variety of landscapes inside of a gigantic tower, acquiring new powers and sometimes backtracking to paths you couldn’t reach previously. 9 Years of Shadows does do a couple of interesting things in comparison to its contemporaries in its genre that separate it from the crowd, but the basic gameplay should be familiar to anyone who has played a labyrinthine platformer previously.
In 9 Years of Shadows, the story follows a young woman named Europa who lost everything, including her family, to a curse emanating from a tower called Talos. The curse drains color and life from the world, and Europa trained herself diligently to explore Talos and defeat whatever is creating the curse. After nearly falling victim to a terrible creature within the tower, Europa is saved by a small, teddy bear-like creature named Apino, who brings color back around Europa somehow. There’s a variety of supporting characters Europa meets as she scales Talos, many of whom offer quests or allow Europa to upgrade her weapon and armor to better handle the trials ahead of her.
As the player, you control Europa, a young woman wielding a large halberd, and navigate through enemies and obstacles in order to free the world from the curse that is emanating from a giant tower. You have your quick, basic 3 hit combo attack, and you can time a heavy attack after your 3 hit combo to get some bonus damage on that final strike. As you progress through the tower, you get loads of new abilities. Shortly after starting the game, you find Apino, and he ties in with gameplay by allowing you to shoot projectiles of light. Your light gauge is also Europa’s health gauge, so using Apino’s projectiles too liberally can result in an easily killed Europa, and dying in 9 Years of Shadows gets you sent right back to your most recent save point.
Thankfully, dealing damage to enemies with Europa’s weapon restores some of your light gauge, and if your meter runs completely empty, you can perform a lullaby with Apino to restore a good chunk of your light gauge. Do note, however, that restoring health with Apino requires Europa to stand still for a significant amount of time, so doing this during boss fights can be extremely challenging- sometimes harder than just focusing on dodging. As you progress, new mechanics get added such as the ability to fully restore your light gauge should it empty for any reason, dependent on if you can hit the buttons at the right times. During major milestones, Europa will acquire armors of Poseidon, Gaia, and Helios, which each offer special traversal abilities such as the power to swim up waterfalls and travel through the ground.
The ability to quickly traverse areas of Talos by switching from one elemental armor to another is great, and each armor’s given color allows Europa to deal bonus damage to enemies weak to that particular element. Elemental weaknesses are denoted simply and easily, as you just need to match the color of your chosen armor to that of the outline around the enemy- no need to dig through a wiki or bestiary to find out weaknesses here. This works great for streamlining gameplay, letting you experience more action instead of poring through supplementary information to deal the best damage.
The boss fights in 9 Years of Shadows are pretty all right- many boast extremely reasonable telegraphs, and many of the more difficult ones will throw out balls of red vines you can strike with your weapon to recover big portions of your light gauge. For the most part, if you can figure out the basics of a monster’s attack patterns and the mechanics for its fight, then you should have no difficulty handling the challenges of this game. Many boss fights won’t give you an opportunity to stand still and use a lullaby with Apino to recover health, either; it’s oftentimes easier to simply focus on dodging.
The level design of 9 Years of Shadows, as befitting a labyrinthine platformer, is meticulously crafted and a joy to explore. Searching all around Talos for resources to upgrade your attack, defense, or length of your life bar is absolutely phenomenal, and the game really comes into its own once you acquire both the Poseidon armor and the mermaid power for fluid underwater traversal (pun fully intended). There’s a variety of NPCs who give side quests, as well as hidden goodies behind breakable walls, so it’s always worthwhile to explore new areas you haven’t before.
9 Years of Shadows, right off the bat, shows the player its absolutely gorgeous visuals. The pixel artwork is extremely detailed, especially of the larger shots of player character Europa, and the bright, colorful effects really make this title a treat for the eyes. Areas like the Portrait of Hope have incredibly detailed backgrounds, like cyclones of water twisting in the background, and other locations may have beautifully designed cathedral windows that show you the majesty of the locations within Talos. The music also works well with the intricate pixel art of 9 Years of Shadows, with an otherworldly, almost lo-fi soundtrack that is sure to have you thinking of the music even after you’ve turned the game off for the day.
One great detail in 9 Years of Shadows is the inclusion of moments where you get to see more of what Europa’s thinking. These scenes, largely portrayed as Europa thinking to herself while she’s riding elevators are found all throughout Talos, seem very reminiscent of the elevator scenes in Metroid Fusion. In these moments, you’re treated to close up artwork of Europa as she contemplates various things, from her backstory, to her uncertainty about her ability to handle what is required of her. It’s a very minor detail, but it’s little things like these that really go the extra length to make the player care about Europa, her world, and her plight, when most titles wouldn’t have thought twice about it.
Apparently, when 9 Years of Shadows first launched, it was prone to crashes and performance issues. I actually had not played the title until the beginning of this week, and encountered zero crashing and no performance problems whatsoever. For those interested about performance on the Steam Deck, 9 Years of Shadows runs great, pulling a steady 60fps and getting around 5-6 hours of play on a single charge, making this a game very light on the Deck’s battery- perfect for playing in a hospital parking lot while waiting for someone to get a test done, for example.
All in all, 9 Years of Shadows is a fantastic title that I’d recommend to anyone who even remotely likes Metroidvanias. I’m normally a sucker for beautiful pixel art, but this one takes that above and beyond, combines it with an incredible soundtrack, great level design, fun exploration, and entertaining boss encounters. If, for some reason, you don’t like games in the vein of labyrinthine platformers, or just don’t like pixel artwork in them, preferring polygonal models like a heathen, then 9 Years of Shadows may not be for you. For anyone else, though, 9 Years of Shadows might make a great way to spend a few hours, and might even bring some color to an otherwise gray games library.
With that, this entry of Save State has come to a close, like someone’s pressing the ctrl+W command on the column. Just for a couple weeks- I’ll be back to talk about some indie title or something similar that I just found super neat. Hope to see you again next time!