Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Shantae and the Pirate's Curse (Switch)

Four years after the release of Shantae: Risky's Revenge, WayForward Technologies released their third Shantae game, Shantae and the Pirate's Curse, in 2014 for the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U, marking the first home console release for the series. While I was aware of this entry for the longest time, including its growing legacy as a modern classic, I wouldn't actually get a chance to play it until the release of the physical Nintendo Switch port through Limited Run Games, which I played while waiting for the delivery of my Limited Run copy of Shantae and the Seven Sirens. In the time between when I first wrote and posted this review, the price of this particular release of the game rocketed to hundreds of dollars on the second-hand market, literally at least ten times that of the original 3DS cartridge. While the game is nowhere near worth paying that kind of money, I still agreed with the hype around Pirate's Curse after about 11 hours of play.

After the events of Risky’s Revenge, Shantae is without her genie powers and adjusting to her new life as a human. One morning, she discovers that her hometown, Scuttle Town, is being taken over by the Ammo Baron, who bought the town from Mayor Scuttlebutt. As the new mayor, the Ammo Baron places Shantae on lockdown pending further punishment. Back in her home, however, the pirate Risky Boots traps Shantae and accuses her of stealing her henchmen and items. Once they discover that Dark Magic has transformed Risky’s henchmen, however, Risky reluctantly forms an alliance with Shantae to pre-emptively stop the Pirate Master, who plans to use the Dark Magic to fuel his resurrection.

Though the story isn’t really the main focus, I still found it fun and engaging. It helps that the game doesn’t take itself too seriously, allowing it to remain lighthearted, including some meta humor, while still allowing the high stakes of the main plot to stay effective. I thought it was interesting seeing Risky and Shantae bond over stopping the Pirate Master and even though they do go back to being enemies again in the end, I got the impression that Risky grew to respect Shantae, even just a little bit. There are also a few subplots involving the ensemble cast, all of which were handled pretty well and didn’t overstay their welcome.

It's fun to see some sort of bond between Shantae and Risky Boots (pictured).

I felt like I stumbled into the solution to the Scuttle Town sidequest, since the game doesn’t really hint that you need to revisit it every so often to advance some part of the story. That said, it’s not too difficult to figure out anyway and it did make me think to occasionally revisit parts of the other islands to continue their subplots as well. For example, going back to Mud Bog Islands multiple times to advance Rottytops’ story.

Pirate’s Curse is designed like a Metroidvania, with the ability to sail between multiple islands that have plenty of hidden or seemingly unreachable areas. As you delve deep into each of the five Dens of Evil, Shantae will acquire new Pirate Gear that allow her to more easily access these hidden areas while also opening up more platforming and combat options. The Pirate Gear is fun to use, especially in tandem, and it’s a great feeling when their intended use on other islands suddenly clicks and you obtain more Dark Magic or Heart Squids. The islands themselves are also designed very well for the most part and provide a mostly steady difficulty curve.

As I beat the game in 11 hours, I didn’t find it that difficult, but there’s still enough of a challenge that you feel some catharsis once you overcome it. If you find yourself underpowered, you can upgrade Shantae’s attacks or obtain some very useful items that can help level the playing field. These include Monster Milk, which temporarily increases attack power; the Bubble Shield, which deflects projectiles; and the Pike Ball, which floats around Shantae and damages anything it touches. You may also need to grind for gems every so often, but the grind isn’t anything unbearable as long as you know where to go.

The Pirate Gear adds some good depth to the gameplay.

Depending on your performance in the game, you may see one of two different endings and unlock some additional wallpapers for the game. Beating the game also unlocks Pirate Mode, where you begin with all five Pirate Gear from the start. Apart from giving a greater sense of freedom on a second playthrough, it’s also perfect for prospective speedrunners.

While I did thoroughly enjoy my time with Pirate’s Curse, there were some questionable design choices. There is some padding during the campaign for some side content that, while enjoyable to some extent, doesn’t add much of anything to the story. The biggest example comes from Tan Line Island, where Shantae is mistaken for a princess and must escape. Here, the player has to guide Shantae through a stealth section, the only one of its kind, and avoid guards with careful timing and control over jump height, then rescue other characters in the same boat, only for the ending to render the whole endeavor pointless. Another example is the “Run, Run, Rottytops!” segment on Mud Bog Island, where Shantae has to carry Rottytops through several screens of enemies, only for the section to also render itself pointless in the end.

Speaking of Mud Bog Island, this island introduces an odd difficulty spike by absolutely cramming the screen full of hard-hitting enemies, some of which also tend to respawn faster than the enemies on other islands. I was gradually able to get through this section without taking much damage, but doing so required great timing and, sometimes, efficient item use. Once you discover the shortcut, however, it’s much easier.

Like the game itself, the bosses at the end of each Den of Evil are challenging, but not too difficult once you figure out their pattern. One boss, however, Dagron, was noticeably more difficult, since his pattern, while easy to figure out, is hard to exploit due to his constant swaying and the precise timing required to actually stun him long enough to deal some real damage. It didn’t help that I also had no healing items at this point, so I ended up dying a lot more against him than any other boss, almost to the point where I wondered if I accidentally made the game unwinnable.

Dagron is more difficult than he needs to be.

For every four Heart Squids you find, Shantae’s maximum health increases with an additional heart. However, finding the Heart Squids isn’t enough, since you have to go to the Squidsmith to complete the process. The only problem with this is that there’s only one Squidsmith in the game and she’s back in Scuttle Town, so you have to sail all the way back there every time. While not the most annoying thing in my playthrough, the number of trips I had to take did feel unnecessary.

One mechanic I did find annoying was the knockback that occurs every time you get hit by an enemy. It’s not too bad a lot of the time, but when precise platforming is required, the knockback is frustrating, since you might get knocked into a bottomless pit at the wrong time, forcing you to restart the screen. Even the recovery move you can buy doesn’t help, since it can sometimes work against you. Because of this, I ended up using longer, safer strategies, like sniping enemies with Risky’s Gun, until I could either breeze past the more annoying screens or avoid them altogether.

Throughout most of the game, the platforming is challenging, but still mostly fair. However, in the run up to the final boss, Shantae has to navigate the Pirate Master’s Palace, which includes some of the most difficult platforming in the game with no margin for error. Fortunately, I was able to skip all of the side rooms of the Palace that contain these difficult sections, which required abusing a combination of the quadruple jump provided by Risky’s Cannon and the extra few pixels of height gained when using Risky’s Hat. This trick requires some precise timing, but I got it down after a few tries and not only got to the final boss within minutes, I saved myself a lot of potential frustration.

Pirate’s Curse has an interesting graphical style combining old-school pixelated graphics with traditional artwork that makes up the UI and shows up during dialogue. The graphics are well-done and help each island look and feel unique from one another, plus the animations are smooth and well-timed to telegraph attacks and add weight to Shantae’s movements. This is complimented by the traditional artwork, which allows more opportunities for the characters to show more complex emotions and add to the more visual humor.

Pirate's Curse has a nice combination of pixelated graphics
and traditional artwork (Pictured: Shantae).

With that said, some enemies still felt like reskins of lesser enemies from other islands, but with a new behavior added to make it seem different. The aesthetic unity of the islands is also broken towards the end, as the game recycles enemies for the sake of challenge without considering some of the clashing ideas, like a tombstone-based monster appearing in Frostbite Island, which is snow and ice themed.

The voice acting, though sparse, is done well and the voices match the characters, especially Cristina Vee as Shantae. As for the soundtrack, composed by Jake Kaufman, it’s very catchy and energetic, with tracks that match every situation and unique themes that fit the aesthetic of each island. Even the title screen and file select music are composed well, setting the tone for what’s to come.

In spite of some odd design choices, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a very fun game. The Metroidvania-style gameplay is fairly well-crafted and the Pirate Gear is fun to use, not to mention the characters and music are also fun. It has a great story that works even if you haven’t played the previous games and even then, it can be enjoyed entirely on a gameplay level. While not perfect, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a game I’d easily recommend to people who just want to have a good time and want to check out a series that, while not as obscure as it once was, is still overlooked. If you're looking to buy a physical copy, I'd suggest the 3DS cartridge. Otherwise, as much I love physical media, save your money and buy it digitally on your preferred platform.

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