Cyber Shadow will kick your butt. Don’t worry, this retro-inspired action title will chew and spit you out, much like the classic Ninja Gaiden series that inspired it. Like in the NES clip, the fun comes from trying to overcome this tall order. Sadly, Cyber Shadow does not support its challenge with consistently fun or rewarding gameplay and progression.
For better or worse, Cyber Shadow nails the era it tries to conjure with a faithful 8-bit presentation, sleek animated cutscenes, and demanding difficulty. Armed with a trusty katana, you test your reflexes as you slice through a robotic apocalypse to free your ninja brothers and save your master. The stages are devilishly designed, with seemingly petty dangers placed exactly where you need to go (or where you land when you slip), and can be giant, pixelated middle fingers as well. Taking that crucial leap to be hit by a stray laser and sent back into the pit you just avoided is simply maddening, and Cyber Shadow is filled to the brim with moments like this. It doesn’t help that the checkpoints are sparse, meaning you have to replay long, painful stretches to reach a new place to breathe out.
Players can make their journey easier by purchasing permanent perks for individual checkpoints. These perks include basic health / mana regeneration, but you can also get one of the many tools, like a shield, turret, or my favorite: the yo-yo-type loot blade. A few tools, like the Slow Fire Turret, feel helpless and not worth the money, but others can be the difference between failure and success. While these upgrades are technically optional, some sections seem almost impossible without them, and it’s easy to end up with an empty wallet and no way to buy help. In some cases you may need to grind to continue, but that’s neither fun nor entirely doable, as some areas don’t have enough enemies or breakable items to quickly collect the necessary funds.
Cyber Shadow starts out simple with just one jump and one attack on the names of the players. That limited arsenal falls flat once the nostalgia wears off (assuming you have fond memories of games of this ilk). Your repertoire eventually expands, but the game takes too long to distribute abilities that make basic traversal more exciting, like a wall climb or sprint. Running a jump and flying through an enemy feels great once you learn how to do it, but Cyber Shadow requires players to hang in there for seven of the game’s ten chapters to get there. Requiring players to endure two-thirds of a punishment game just to get skills that are part of every ninja’s starter kit doesn’t feel satisfying.
The default control scheme also makes it difficult to perform certain actions. Most abilities are mapped to a cardinal direction on the analog d-pad / stick plus the attack button. This setup works decently enough, but during frantic platforming segments it’s easy to trigger the wrong ability, like transitioning from an overhead draw to a shuriken throw. Considering how often you have to change course in a fraction of a second, having the d-pad with so many functions ends up being tedious. Basic actions and sprinting can be remapped (I highly recommend moving the sprint to the right shoulder triggers) but actual abilities cannot. This is disappointing, because pressing two buttons to throw shurikens feels awkward compared to what a single button would have accomplished.
When the time goes, Cyber Shadow can provide some solid entertainment. The action becomes more fluid and engaging once you get all the abilities. Boss fights are my favorite encounters; they bring pain but are exciting and generally feel right (except for a tedious water fight against a mechanical dragon). There is also a variety of decent gameplay, including a motorcycle chase sequence and digitized battles inside computer terminals.
Even with such diversions, Cyber Shadow doesn’t do much surprising and can sometimes be too difficult for its own good. However, those with a lot of patience and an appetite for pain will find pleasure in this modern throwback. Just know that the price of entry may be your sanity, and that’s a steep price to pay for this competent but flawed war of attrition.