Inspirations are inevitable in creative work. Iterating on established concepts is how we get new ideas and it can be a challenging process. References, by contrast, are easy. Show people the thing they know and they’ll (hopefully) associate their positive opinions of that with whatever is making the reference. Cyber Shadow knows this. Sprites and characters resemble familiar ones from several other franchises. Gameplay mechanisms are cobbled together from all over video gamedom. It has a secret area with a Mario Bros-style warp zone that you access by walking above the screen, only with gadgets instead of warps. It’s fun to point out things you recognize. Unfortunately that’s Cyber Shadow’s best quality, and it’s all downhill from there.

Controls and gamefeel are everything in a game like this and CS gets it mostly right. Moving, jumping, and slashing all feel responsive. The majority of the special weapons and abilities are equally solid with one very notable exception: the dash move is performed by hitting a direction twice in quick succession. In theory this wouldn’t be so bad, but this coupled with the parry also being a forward tap means that a missed input or mistimed parry of multiple bullets can easily mean a very stupid instant death. Being able to map the command to something else would have been appreciated considering how many buttons go unused on a standard controller.

Level design in CS is a mixed bag. As self-contained levels they’re generally strong, testing whichever skills each section is built for quite well. What I like less how it attempts interconnectivity. From a certain point about 70% through the game you’ll unlock the means to access everything you hadn’t been able to in the previous levels and the game will strongly suggest you go back to comb for optional upgrades. I did this for the first two levels, then got bored and went back to progression. As cool as it may seem to go back to early game sections with a complete kit, the excitement wears off quickly when the challenge that made those sections memorable is rendered inert by your new moves.

What makes this even less enticing is the lack of navigation options. The only way back to old levels is via the green computer terminals at the start of each, meaning if you decide to do an optional sweep you’re fully committed until you get to another computer even if you’ve already found everything. Compound this with secrets that’ll skip you to later levels forcing you to run them multiple times to get all the goodies and you’ve got some of the least satisfying side content in the genre. This game is not a Metroidvania and its impression of one isn’t very convincing.

Fortunately the game is plenty beatable without backtracking. CS throws plenty of health upgrades at you, but they only really matter for boss fights as the levels very quickly fill with instant death traps. By the endgame most threats that don’t kill you might as well as you get knocked away Ninja Gaiden style and wombo-comboed to oblivion. That’s typical for the genre, but it seems at odds with itself here given the emphasis the game places on upgrades. More often than not all those red bars may as well not exist.

This ties into a personal bugbear: rules inconsistencies. Why do some spikes instantly kill while others merely tickle? Same with certain fleshy obstacles, electrical hazards, etc. I’m not a fan of posturing that there are dogmatic game design principles that must be followed, but this makes learning each new area’s dangers more trial and error than they really needed to be. If a spike was always death I wouldn’t chance a hit with them, but a 1-damage spike is a perfectly fine thing to plant your feet on if it means skipping a fight that could easily lead to more damage. Sure you’ll eventually get it, but this lack of clarity adds hurdles to the learning process that didn’t need to be there in the first place.

And this is where we get to the crux of the matter: CS loves punishing the player, and not so much in a tough-but-fair Ninja Gaiden or Dark Souls way. Honestly the game isn’t really all that difficult to get through. Instead it just kneecaps you over and over in increasingly irritating ways. This is well demonstrated by its checkpoint system which could be described as the inverse of Shovel Knight’s. Where that game offered rewards for smashing checkpoints instead of using them and risking a long walk if you died, CS instead will give you a checkpoint and nothing else, making you pay for things like SP refills and gadgets that make the upcoming section easier. Of course you don’t need these things, but it’s when the game starts having you pay for full health restoration on each respawn that I start to take umbrage. This genre is all about dying, learning, and getting better. Having to pay for the privilege of a full health bar to make mistakes with is unnecessary and benefits the player in no way. Hollowing in Dark Souls works because you can fix it by making progress and learning the level. CS just demands that you pay resources to be allowed health. It’s asinine. 

Let me illustrate this problem with a small spoiler. The best and worst parts of the game come immediately next to each other. You’re introduced to a friendly motorcycle-bot. It tells jokes. You do an awesome auto-scrolling chase section, followed by it transforming into a mech suit for a rampage that I could have played an entire game of. Then its original rider turned villain shows up, boss lifebar and all, but you don’t get to fight him. Instead he immediately kills your new buddy and reduces you to one health in a cutscene. And then to add insult to injury, the next checkpoint costs money just to enable the healing function despite the game putting you in that situation to begin with.

This is the experience CS provides. With the exception of the very start and very end, every time I finished a section I felt more relieved than satisfied. The last leg of the game stands out as bizarrely easy with the last 4 or so bosses only taking me a handful of tries in total. By the time you should be doing your “final exam” of everything you’ve learned, it instead introduces a new level gimmick that’s fairly easy to handle and you can just waltz through. Maybe I’m wrong and other people will struggle here. Did I get gud? I guess that’s possible, but I didn’t feel like I did anything exceptional. Instead it felt like the game was out of ideas and I had too many solutions to its problems. Big set pieces that should be satisfying to surmount aren’t, meanwhile minor tasks that are disproportionately difficult feel like achievements. The game’s feedback is borked.

This review has been a lot more negative than I intended for it to be when I sat down to write it, but the more I thought back on my playthrough the more things I found that bothered me. Upon finishing the game I thought it was just mediocre. Then I went back a few days after beating it to confirm some things and no, it just isn’t very good. It takes inspiration from so many sources, in some cases even directly, but never demonstrates understanding of why most of its ideas worked in those games in the first place. What you’re left with feels like gangly adolescence in ninja-game form: awkward, stumbling, and constantly attempting to re-invent itself in real time despite the fact that you just saw it yesterday. Cyber Shadow is proof that no matter how much love you pour into your letter there’s no guarantee of it resulting in romance.

Reviewed on Xbox Game Pass.