Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Shantae: Half-Genie Hero (PS4)

In 2013, developer WayForward had a successful Kickstarter campaign for the fourth Shantae Game, Half-Genie Hero, which finally saw a proper release in 2016. This would also serve as my formal introduction to the series, as I found the Risky Beats Edition at a Best Buy and, somewhat aware of the series at the time, decided to give it a try. As later purchases of the rest of the series from Limited Run would show, I got hooked. However, I never gave this entry a proper review, so I decided to rectify that with a second playthrough. Though I still enjoyed the game and found it improved over Pirate’s Curse in some aspects, I now believe it needed a little more development time, or at least more of a concrete plan.

Shantae is roused from sleep in the middle of the night by a mysterious voice. She follows it and discovers a hidden cave, where a messenger from the Genie Realm warns her of an impending evil that only she can defeat. Before the messenger can elaborate further, Shantae wakes up and visits her Uncle Mimic. He is working on a Dynamo, a powerful machine that can defend Scuttle Town from attackers and make Shantae’s job as Guardian Genie easier. However, the pirate Risky Boots lays siege to Scuttle Town and attempts to steal the blueprints, hoping to use them for her own nefarious purposes.

Although I enjoyed the story of Half-Genie Hero, it seemed somewhat unfocused. Shantae does spend the majority of the game collecting parts to fix Uncle Mimic’s Dynamo, but the chapter-style presentation of the subplots means that the supposed looming threat, along with Risky’s plan, takes a backseat until it’s relevant during the final stretch. As such, I didn’t feel much tension throughout a lot of my playtime. I do give the story credit, however, for having fairly tight pacing and less blatant filler, though the subplot with Holly Lingerbean felt a bit pointless, as it sets up a conflict that’s resolved somewhat abruptly.

Half-Genie Hero continues the series’ Metroidvania gameplay, which encourages repeat visits to the various locations across Sequin Land to uncover additional items and powerups as Shantae gains new abilities. These abilities largely revolve around the use of Shantae’s transformation dances, which see their return to the series after their absence from Pirate’s Curse. Each transformation provides its own advantages, mainly for accessing new areas. For instance, the Monkey form lets Shantae jump higher and climb up walls and the Elephant form can break through solid rock. Some transformations also seem redundant at first, like the Crab and Mermaid or Bat and Harpy, but are different enough to stand out, as they’re all required to reach different places.

Shantae must use her transformations to effectively get around.

I also noticed some great quality-of-life changes that help streamline the experience so it feels less clunky than Pirate’s Curse. For one thing, Heart Squids and visit to the Squidsmith are no longer required to increase Shantae’s maximum health. Instead, she simply needs to find Heart Holders throughout the world, which, from some additional research, is how the series previously handled it. It’s also now possible to toggle the relics the player collects, creating a more customizable experience. For example, you can choose how well Shantae attracts gems and hearts or how much damage Shantae inflicts or receives.

Unfortunately, there are some small, but glaring issues. Some of the transformation abilities end up near-useless to where you wonder why WayForward bothered to implement them. The Mouse Bite, for instance, has little use outside of defending yourself within miniature mazes or obtaining a specific trophy that requires it, though the biggest waste is the Bat Sonar. It automatically illuminates an area around Shantae, but is only ever useful in one specific room shrouded in darkness in one level. I discovered, however, that this ability drops to completely useless if you can take advantage of an exploit involving the light that emanates around Shantae when she performs her transformation dances.

I also found the game a bit easy, especially compared to Pirate’s Curse. It’s pretty easy to grind gems, there’s even an optional Gemjug form that can be exploited for this purpose, and the purchasable items make the game increasingly one-sided in Shantae’s favor. If it means anything, even though magic is available to Shantae, you still have to buy the magic and, even then, I almost never felt the need to use it outside of the final boss. Platforming challenges are also later trivialized by the Bat and Harpy forms, especially since Harpy can fly above a good number of screens. That said, one platforming section near the end still had me sweating.

Boss fights at least have a good variety.

Half-Genie Hero is also a bit on the short side and it’s not too difficult to end with 100% completion. Since this was my second playthrough, I accomplished this in roughly seven-and-a-half hours (07:37:17 if you want the exact time), lower than my roughly 11-hour time before. On a lesser note, I was a little disappointed that on PS4, the Options button didn’t pause the game and that, instead, everything was handled through a menu accessible by pressing the touchpad. While I appreciated how easily the player could navigate the menu, I’m too used to Options at least having that function.

Compared to other Shantae titles, Half-Genie Hero has a noticeably different graphics and art style. Environments are presented on a 2.5D plane, with hand-drawn sprites laid over 3D backgrounds, and it’s easy to figure out what transformation you’ll need and when just by looking around. From a gameplay perspective, I also liked that during Mermaid Falls, one detail that looks like decoration suddenly takes on a new meaning once you obtain the Mouse form. Scuttle Town is also very streamlined, with only five locations on a 3D plane as opposed to the noticeably larger 2D town from Pirate’s Curse. The ever-changing art style of the series now also looks more “anime” than before, complete with larger eyes on faces, but is still aesthetically pleasing.

Like Pirate’s Curse before it, the soundtrack by Jake Kaufman is very catchy, which made me glad I got the Risky Beats Edition with a physical disc so I can listen to it whenever I want. The main theme, “Dance Through the Danger”, is also a great song with good vocals and is noticeably used as a recurring motif throughout the soundtrack, which helps it stay in your head. I will note, however, that a couple tracks sounded vaguely like they would fit within a Sonic the Hedgehog game, particularly “Mermaid Falls” and “Counterfeit Mermaids”. There’s also some minimal voice acting throughout the game, though Risky Boots has noticeably more spoken lines than in Pirate’s Curse. I’m aware that one of the Kickstarter stretch goals was full English voice acting with translated subtitles, but that didn’t get funded, which explains some seemingly random recorded lines.

The Risky Beats Edition came with a physical soundtrack.

Half-Genie Hero is a little rough around the edges, but still a great example of crowdfunded video games done right. The transformation-based Metroidvania gameplay is fun and the characters, even if they’re arguably not as well-written this time around, are unique and interesting. If you just want to have a good time, you really can’t go wrong with this game.

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