Shantae is a series that has been around since 2002 and has danced it’s way into the hearts of many gamers over the years. Hopping to the beat of Risky’s Revenge, swash-buckling across the wicked seas in Pirates Curse and currently being a strong example of a successful Kickstarter project.
Half-Genie Hero marks many firsts for the franchise; coming to high definition consoles, coming off a game without Shantae’s transforming powers and riding on the back of a successful Kickstarter. So saying expectations for this title is high might be an understatement. But as Pirates Curse and Adventure Time: Secret of the Nameless Kingdom prove, WayForward is a skilled developer.
Do they dance through the danger to offer one of the series biggest adventures?
Shantae continues to defend her home after regaining her genie powers after the events from Pirates Cruse but wakes up after hearing something. After walking out of her lighthouse home, she hears the call from the Genie Realm, asking her to beware of great darkness on the horizon. Shantae snaps out of this trance and sees herself in Scuttle Town, where she helps her Uncle Mimic build a contraption that will defend the town.
Along the way, Shantae must fight various foes from the series past that are causing trouble. This set up allows for a less connected story, as every level feels like a mini-chapter that loosely connects to a basic story thread. As a result, the story feels weaker than Pirates Curse as that game had Shantae go on a grand adventure that felt connected; everything you did felt important to the overarching narrative.
Here, the story still is important but it is less tense for sure. This allows for more humor to be present throughout the game and Half Genie Hero is one of the funniest games in the series. The writing is quite strong and some of the lines are really funny. Shantae bounces off her friends and foes quite well and this makes every conversation feel like a cartoon.
I loved this and it made exploring every location enjoyable. The story is also told through the levels themselves. You have Shantae’s friend Bolo explore Mermaid Falls in his own quest to save the maddens but ends up captured as well hanging upside down in the level background. Another example is in the carpet level where you are part of a race and you see the other racers both in the foreground & background.
The world feels alive and that helps make your adventure feel larger than it really is. The final area of the game closes off the story in a nice way and regardless of your ending it feels rewarding to beat the game. Overall, the story here is enjoyable and does a lot right.
The Design & Gameplay
This title takes linear level progression structure you see in a traditional 2D platforrmer with the Metroidvania-style level design past games in the series followed. This results in an interesting combination of the two elements clashing together, mainly from the fact that despite many of the series staples coming back (shop to purchase relics to preform magic attacks, health potions, backtracking through completed levels, etc) the games main levels feel far closer to a traditional platformer than prior games.
Levels in many cases feel like mini-challenges that have sub levels you need to complete before entering the main boss area of the stage. I would like to compare it to the Zone system in the Sonic the Hedgehog series, with sections of the levels split up with sections (divided by save points you come across) before transitioning to the next location.
Platforming gets a larger focus and this leads to strong level design with fun gimmicks. One strong example of this is the Magic Carpet area, as the first section has you hopping from carpet to carpet. I enjoyed this system and it made platforming a lot of fun. But that doesn’t mean all you do is just jump around.
Shantae has her iconic belly dancing transformations and hair whipping action like prior games. Using your hair whip attack feels great and the various magic abilities you can purchase like a lighting cloud or fireballs make combat fun. Boss fights are a highlight as they have interesting patterns to discover and you can face them in your basic form or turn into an animal to make the fight easier. Again, like the level design, you have options and I appreciate that greatly.
Each transformation offers something different; the Monkey can climb up walls while the Mermaid can swim underwater. Each form has multiple usages and they are a lot of fun to discover and utilize. They also help flex the difficulty curve of the game to a degree; if you are struggling with a tight platforming section, you can turn into the Bat and hover across the gap for example. This gives the player options for how they explore stages and it makes revisits (which you will do often if you want to get everything) enjoyable.
Past games made transforming a bit of a hassle or at the very least, not as snappy compared to the Pirate Tools you used in Pirates Curse. Here, it feels really snappy to turn into different creatures and you can even purchase an item to make the process even faster. While the pacing isn’t as fast compared to Pirates Curse, the game feels much faster than the first two games in the series.
This game isn’t the longest game in the series, taking up to 6 hours to beat without 100% everything but you can add an additional hour or so if you backtrack to find everything. When you beat the game, you unlock a ‘Hero Mode’ which gives you five of your eight animal transformation’s from the start. This is the mode speed-runners can have a lot of fun with; having all your tools from the start can open up different ways to tackle levels.
Other modes will be added to the game post launch as free downloadable content such as a special ‘Risky Mode’ where you play as Risky Boots using mechanics lifted right out of Pirates Curse sometime in the near future. More playable characters will be added post launch as well which include Shantae’s friends Sky, Bolo and Rottytops. You can even get a glimpse of how Risky will move/animate during her adventure through a special boss fight toward the end of the game.
The included content has a lot of value and with tons of trophies to collect you will be busy while you wait for the Free Character DLC to release in the near future.
The Shantae series is infamous for having amazing pixel art and while the series moves away from it for this latest adventure, the games looks fantastic. Shantae and the entire cast animate like they are cartoon characters, with the motto ‘Everything must always move’ being clearly present across every animation in the game.
I loved this look, as it made it a living cartoon. WayForwards last major HD project Ducktales Remastered did something similar to this as well and it made that game look fantastic. Level backgrounds and some in-game objects are 3D while the characters/foes/NPC’s are 2D animated objects. This art direction messes well and it leads to a striking visual presentation. Some key boss fights do a great job in showing how well this blend of 2D and 3D works.
Musically this is hands down one of my favorite soundtracks in the entire Shantae series. It is audibly varied ranging from having a lyrical track playing to the introduction stage to having very SEGA Genesis/Super Nintendo sounding tracks throughout the levels. It invokes memories of the Sonic and SEGA games in general; I was bopping my head the entire time playing this game.
Interestingly enough, the game use mild voice acting to great effect. Shantae and Risky Boots will speak every now and then, to which is the voice acting sounds quite good. It matches the characters and gives them added personality.
Regarding performance, I played the game on the PS Vita platform and despite slowdown happening in very specific areas, the game ran at a very stable frame rate and was 50-60FPS the entire game. Running at native resolution, the game shines on the Vita and is one of the systems best looking games. PS4, Xbox One, and PC all appear to run at a locked frame rate (60FPS) and the Wii U version reportedly runs well too.
Overall: 4.5 out of 5
Shantae Half Genie Hero is one of WayForward’s best games, as it takes everything strong about the Shantae series and refines it to perfection. Strong level design that always offers something new, a charming story with sharp writing, tight gameplay mechanics that improve upon ideas from the first two games and a lot of content with the promise of more releasing in the future; Shantae has never been better. While some aspects make me prefer Pirates Curse, I overall find Half Genie Hero to be a great game in this strong series of action/platformers and highly recommend the game to any fan of the genre.
I reviewed this game on the PS Vita platform using a copy I purchased off the PlayStation Network Storefront. It is currently out digitally on the PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, PS Vita and PC platforms. Retail versions are out now for the PS4 and PS Vita versions, with retail Wii U versions releasing Dec. 27th.