You might have forgotten about digital only releases in the run up to Christmas with the shiny baubles of triple AAA treats gleaming in your eyes. Now that the wrapping paper has been binned and the decorations
left in the corner cleared away, it might be time to think about spending your dwindling Crimbo funds on some of the fine indie titles available to download on PSN. One such release, from the 20th of December, was Shantae: Half-Genie Hero from developer Wayforward Technologies and publisher XSEED Games. Having obtained funding through a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013, this is actually the fourth game featuring the titular hero Shantae, though the first on current-generation consoles. Don’t worry if you haven’t come across its predecessors, though – this is a ‘soft reboot’ of the franchise with a standalone plot. Our reviewer has braved the saturated colour palette of this deceptively deep platformer to bring you the verdict. Heroic or half-formed? Read on below to find out.
If I had to describe Shantae: Half-Genie Hero in one word, it would be ‘vibrant.’ Everything about the game pops with the flair of a Saturday morning cartoon. The first thing that will strike you are the visuals, the animation in the game is fantastic with creative character and enemy designs that are just incredibly cute. This cartoon tone is consistent throughout and the dialogue, level design, and the light-hearted story work together well to form a cohesive whole. Not every aspect of the game is quite as charming, the platforming gameplay itself carries a few hitches and backtracking through the few environments several times can feel like a bit of a grind but, on the whole, the game doesn’t overstay its welcome. The adorable heroine and her odd assortment of acquaintances were more than enough to pull me through to the story’s conclusion and beyond. Hop on a giant bird and fly down to Scuttle Town with me to have a deeper look at the game.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero starts out simply enough; after a prophetic dream, our heroine’s hometown comes under threat from a comical lady-pirate villain. As the town’s resident half-genie guardian, it’s up to Shantae to step up and drive the pirates back from the streets. This is where the platforming action kicks in, after a brief intro to Scuttle Town, the game’s hub, you’ll fly off to your destination and start kicking some pirate butt. Well, whipping pirate butt to be more accurate. There are many types of attack in the game but Shantae’s main melee attack involves whipping enemies into submission with her strongest weapon – her hair. When you think about the effort that must have gone into that dye-job and pony-tail, it’s not surprising that there’s more than just fashion considerations involved. So the first area consists mainly of jumping and whipping but once you’ve cleared the first boss you’ll get your first transformation. These transformations make up the main gameplay hook of Shantae and allow our heroine to take on various animal forms, each of which comes with its own abilities – usually related to helping traverse previously unexplorable parts of the environment. For example, your first transformation is an adorable purple monkey that allows you to jump higher and stick to walls. Each transformation feels unique and despite a couple having similar uses (there are a couple of flying forms, a couple of water-friendly forms, etc.) the level design is intuitive enough that it’s always clear when you need a different form, or an upgrade to your current form, to progress.
Aside from lethal hair and animal transformations, you’ll find and purchase other interesting additions to your combat abilities throughout your adventure. The item shop in the hub town sells magic spells and equipment known as relics that will augment your fighting abilities. One enjoyable aspect of the combat in Shantae is that it’s quite free-form for a platformer, giving you the option to approach enemies in the way you see fit rather than having a rock-paper-scissors system where certain enemies can only be killed by certain attacks. If you want a ranged attack option, you can get yourself a fireball or three to hurl at distant foes. Alternatively, if you’re more comfortable in a melee, you can get yourself a reflecting shield that will send back their attacks until you can get up close and personal, and so on. Each ability or spell has its own upgrades and adding to this equipment relics to augment your attacking and defensive power means there’s plenty of reasons to scour those levels for hidden items or the shiny gems needed to buy them.
Traversal fails to be quite as fun as combat. There’s nothing wrong with the mechanics, per se, but some of your transformations can be a little unwieldy to manoeuvre and some of the tasks you’re asked to complete with them later in the game may test your patience. Fortunately, the most demanding of these are saved for optional areas where hidden transformations and relics can be found. When following the story thread, there were some areas that took me a few goes but no unusual difficulty spikes or anything that really killed the pace of the game. The difficulty level, on the whole, is fairly low. Even playing on the hardest setting will not present much challenge to experienced platforming veterans. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, the game gives you enough in the way of basic problem solving to keep progression from feeling like a formality while keeping itself accessible to all comers. If you happen to be a gamer parent, this is one you could play with the kids with no worries. Then again, if you do crave more of a test, you could impose your own restrictions; foregoing health and armour upgrades, or trying to speedrun the game to completion (for which there is a trophy to obtain.)
Told mostly through text, with a few soundbites here and there, the story of Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is a nebulous one. You’re told from the start that you need to save the genie world (and thus your world) from some great threat but most of the game is actually spent gathering pieces for your inventor uncle’s latest contraption. Not that a game like this needs a particularly deep story but this bleeds into your objectives in-game in a not-so-desirable way. You’re essentially performing a sequence of cascading fetch quests (find an item to get an item to give an item to get another item). This often boils down to going everywhere you can go, including backtracking through previous maps, and using your new powers to open up inaccessible areas. Not exactly an uncommon mechanic in platformers but Shantae asks you to do this with such vagueness and frequency that it can feel somewhat directionless at times. You’ll become intimately familiar with the six locations in the world as you revisit them between the main story beats as even ignoring secrets and following the storyline requires this frequent backtracking. Mercifully, a generous fast-travel system alleviates some of the frustration this could otherwise bring.
The structure of the game is, generally, that you’ll complete a ‘world’ and its accompanying boss which then opens the world up for you to revisit at your leisure. Once you’ve completed a fetchy-flavoured task or two, you’ll get the map to the next world and repeat. The tasks in between might not be too interesting, even invested with cartoon humour as they are, but the boss fights at the end of each level add a nice punctuation point to each section of the game. The character designs for the bosses and villains of the game is vibrant and creative and each encounter feels different, blending a few effective gimmicks in with some creative ways to test how well you can use your platforming and combat skills. The interplay between the villains and our heroine is endearing too, it may be of the two-dimensional kid’s cartoon variety but, the characters all have their own personalities in Shantae and even a few of the supporting cast are quite memorable. The squid-like villain obsessed with merchandising opportunities certainly sticks in my mind despite only appearing in a couple of scenes.
The soundtrack consists of a driving kind of techno-pop that keeps a toe-tapping beat and does well at adding a sense of urgency, drawing you through the action at a pace. It compliments the tone and style of the game, it’s upbeat… and I hated it. I’m genuinely sorry to the composer to say that as it’s competent music and it really does fit with the atmosphere of the game, it’s just absolutely anathematic to my musical taste. Your opinion on this may differ (Chris, all you need to know is it’s not The Killers.) The sound effect side of things is as cutesy as the animation, think adorable things making adorable noises and you’ve got it. The only real let down here is the lack of voiced lines for the most part, as the odd spoken phrase here and there can come off as a little jarring.
The main story of Shantae: Half-Genie Hero won’t take you much more than 6-8 hours to complete but the length feels about right as it stops the gameplay loop from getting stale. You can extend this by looking for all the hidden items around the world but all told my first playthrough was 7hr 45m with 85% of all items so there’s not an infinite amount to explore as you might expect. After you’ve finished the main story you’ll unlock hero mode, which allows you to start the story again with Shantae’s main transformations unlocked. It’s a chance to go for those speedruns or 100% completion but it doesn’t offer too many compelling reasons to dive back in. It’s worth noting that developer Wayforward has promised an additional mode featuring the game’s main antagonist ‘Risky Boots’ to come as well as alternate characters but we can assume these will be later DLC releases, either way, they’re not in the game at launch, so we can’t take them into account here.
I enjoyed my time with Shantae. The game’s quirky sense of humour should appeal to all ages, as will the especially smooth cartoon animation style. It’s not an experience that will last forever but it’s fun while it lasts. If you’re a fan of platformers then it is a polished example of its type and is definitely worth checking out. I’d also recommend this to anyone looking for a game to play with the kids or ladyfriend, as it’s sure to raise a few smiles and very suitable for playing in short bursts with its frequent saving and generous checkpoints. Colourful, playful, and full of life, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is a worthy contender for your pennies despite a few niggles here and there.
Shantae: Half Genie Hero is available now as a digital download for PlayStation 4, PS Vita, and Wii U. Let us know whether you’ll be checking it out or give your take on the game in the comments below.
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out on a standard PS4 using a digital code provided by the publisher. This has no effect on the content of the review or the final score awarded. For more information, please read our Review Policy.