Remember back in 2013, when Kickstarter was all the rage?
I recently looked back at many of the video game projects that I feverishly supported, noticing that I’m still waiting for many of them to release. The quality of those games that I had already received were a bit of a mixed bag, and I’m still a little bitter about Mighty No. 9. To my pleasant surprise, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is a highly-refined platformer. As the fourth entry in the Shantae series, developer WayForward have learned from their previous titles to create the most accessible and polished game in the series.
Above all, the most noteworthy refinement here is the jump to high-definition visuals; retro-styled characters and environments make way for a smooth painted visual style, leaving Half-Genie Hero looking marvellous. Each environment – ranging from the hub area, Scuttle Town, to factories, castles, forests and magic carpet raceways – is superbly designed, overflowing with rich colours and charm. Shantae’s joyous dancing idle animation and expressive character portraits assist in sculpting a world that is happy-go-lucky and full of personality. On top of all of that, just try not to tap your foot along with the incredibly catchy soundtrack. Featuring a myriad of upbeat and exciting tracks, the music is irresistibly fun and meshes well with the game’s fast-paced platforming.
While developer WayForward doesn’t provide much context to educate series newcomers, the relationships between characters and settings are generally straightforward. It isn’t overly difficult to piece together an understanding of which characters are friends of the titular dancing heroine, which are enemies, and so on. Unfortunately, the overarching story is for the most part quite weak, but it is held together by some genuinely funny writing and endearing supporting characters.
The town is, once again, attacked by the self-proclaimed Queen of the Seven Seas, Risky Boots, and some of Shantae’s uncle’s blueprints are stolen – blueprints for a device designed to protect Scuttle Town. Throughout the initial five- to seven-hour story, characters come and go to fit in certain plot points before moving on, and eventually, the plot shifts back to focus on Risky Boots. The overall story comes across as loose elements strung together; while a weaker story is certainly unfortunate, the strong cast of characters more than compensate.
As far as gameplay is concerned, most of your to-do list comes from talking to townspeople and receiving quest objectives. Solving their problems often rewards you with a key item desired by another townsperson, furthering your progress. The lack of a quest section in the menu makes completing objectives feel a bit scattered. Forget what one of your objectives is? You have to return to Scuttle Town and speak to the quest giver again to recall that information. When you receive tasks from numerous townspeople at any given time (many of which do not have quest icons above their heads), finding a specific quest objective can become tedious. The worker at the bath house provides two hints at a time to help focus in on your current objectives, making the open nature of tasks feel a little less sporadic and more of just a minor inconvenience.
As in previous titles, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero’s main gameplay hook is the variety of transformation that Shantae unlocks throughout her adventures. With each new transformation, Shantae can morph into a creature with unique capabilities, allowing her to traverse and explore in new ways. While the Monkey Dance allows Shantae to jump higher and climb walls, the Bat Dance allows Shantae to hover horizontally over long gaps. There are eight main transformations in total, with each having secret upgrades to collect that provide new functionality. Shifting between transformations is quick and easy, allowing for plenty of experimentation in both platforming and combat. Shantae can whip her hair to defeat foes, and plenty of upgrades and magical abilities are unlocked as collectibles or by purchasing them from item merchants. Shantae’s base form and transformations each feel satisfying in terms of their uniqueness, and utilizing them for their distinct purposes also highlights Half-Genie Hero’s exceptional level design.
Though the game offers only a total of six stages, new transformations and collectibles bring you back with genuine interest. Completionists rejoice: on the stage select screen, a list of collectibles for each stage informs you of which treasures you have, and haven’t, managed to locate. The ability to return to town from anywhere in a stage is also unlocked early in the game, minimising any unnecessary backtracking. Unlockable characters also offer additional story content, treating those who invest more time with more ways to play.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero brings the series to the best place it has ever been, thanks to some fantastic visuals, a catchy soundtrack and a loveable cast of characters. While the quest structure and plot are somewhat lacking, the overabundance of charm exuded by both the cast and setting provide more than enough motivation to look past minor grievances. On top of that, the transformations and varied platforming are more than enough to keep players coming back. Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is a delightful platformer that is sure to appeal to platforming fans, both old and new alike.