Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Shantae and the Seven Sirens (PS4)

Three years after the release of Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, WayForward released the fifth Shantae game, Shantae and the Seven Sirens, as a two-part iOS game for Apple devices and later as a complete release for other platforms. When the game released on PS4, I eagerly bought the Limited Run release, knowing I’d have to wait a few months to actually play it. Once I finally got my hands on it, I spent a couple days playing it to see if they had learned anything from the faults of Half-Genie Hero. While I can tell that WayForward is improving with the series and I like the new spins they put on the core gameplay elements, they have one big problem they still need to work on.

Shantae and her friends arrive at Paradise Island for the Half-Genie Festival, where she meets five other half-genies. During a rehearsal performance on stage, the other half-genies are kidnapped, leaving Shantae alone. With the festival on the brink of cancellation, Shantae sets out to find her fellow half-genies in the Sunken City beneath the island and uncover the cause of their disappearance. During her quest, she runs into Risky Boots, who seeks a legendary treasure beneath the island, and battles the Seven Sirens.

Compared to Half-Genie Hero, Sevens Sirens has stronger writing, with a more focused plotline filled with great twists and better character development for Shantae and Risky Boots. There are some missed opportunities, mainly specific interactions with the new characters, but they didn’t get too much in the way of enjoying the story. I also liked the world-building with the formal introduction of new half-genies and how their powers are worked very naturally into the story, as well as how they feel like fleshed out characters. If there’s one thing I can’t get over, however, it’s the character regression with Sky. In contrast with her portrayal in the previous two games, where she was more than willing to give Shantae the help she needed, she’s completely unhelpful to Shantae in this game, selfishly focusing more on having a good vacation and acting like a jerk to everyone. Sky does get involved in a side quest, though that ultimately goes nowhere and feels more like padding. In fact, an entire side story involving the Squid Baron feels like padding, since it doesn’t have any payoff, not even a boss fight, and exists just to make jokes about game development.

Even Shantae has had enough of Sky's attitude.

Where Half-Genie Hero was a more level-based affair, Sevens Sirens returns to the Metroidvania style of gameplay from the other games. Paradise Island truly feels like one large interconnected world with plenty of hidden secrets to uncover with Shantae’s powers. Shantae can even explore multiple towns with their own secrets, helpful NPCs and inventories in the Item Shop. With such a large map to explore, Shantae can gradually access eight different Warp Rooms for quick access to other parts of the island, allowing faster travel and quicker access to certain areas. The Squidsmith also makes her return, but thankfully there are now three that the player can visit, one for each town, which makes gaining new Heart Containers by melting down four Heart Squids at a time more convenient.

Sevens Sirens introduces two new twists to the standard formula. The biggest is the new card system. The way it works is that when Shantae defeats a non-boss monster, there’s a chance they will drop a Monster Card bearing their likeness, with the drop rate dependent on the individual monster. If Shantae collects enough copies of the same card, ranging from one to five copies, she can equip that card to gain a new ability. These abilities usually buff certain attributes, like increasing the speed of her Dash Newt form or negating damage dealt by bottomless pits. Particularly rare cards, each based on the Seven Sirens, aren’t randomly dropped and must instead be bought from certain NPCs using Nuggets, a hidden collectable found throughout the island. These cards are usually worth the price, offering buffs like MP regeneration or increasing Shantae’s damage output by one point.

While you can easily run past most encounters, this system does encourage fighting monsters for a chance at useful cards, along with the usual random gem drops or regaining some HP and MP. Of course, doing this means you’ll build up quite a collection of duplicates, which fortunately you can sell off to a Monster Card Reseller in one of the towns for extra gems. The process of buying and selling cards also got me thinking about how it somehow accurately represents TCGs in the real world, which encourage actually trading cards but most players trade them for money and some only think about resell value. I also thought about how, much like in actual TCG boosters, Monster Cards have different drop rates, but some felt too infrequent, especially considering there are fifty cards to collect and by the time I completed the game, I got maybe half of them with the minimum requirement.

My card album after 10 hours of play.

The other change is how transformation dances work in this game. Instead of changing forms through dances, Shantae instead activates four abilities she obtains from the other half-genies while her alternate forms are activated through performing certain actions after obtaining the appropriate one of five Fusion Coins. I liked the idea behind instant transformations cutting down on the time required to change forms, but felt disappointed at reserving the dances for magic that drains your MP. On top of that it takes a couple seconds of dancing before Shantae can activate one of her powers and the action doesn’t stop while she’s doing it, so taking any damage interrupts the dance. As much as I appreciated the bold change, I would hope that future games could instead focus on streamlining the Transformation Dances so they’re not as clunky and still retain the series’ core mechanic.

Unfortunately, Seven Sirens also took the wrong lesson from Half-Genie Hero and pretty much doubled down on making the experience just a bit too imbalanced. Simply put, this game isn’t really that challenging. It’s much more generous with gems this time around, to the point where I easily gained hundreds from clearing out a labyrinth on the first go and maxed out Shantae’s damage output and attack speed after only two bosses. By the time I got to the fourth boss, I had already maxed out all of her magical abilities and by the time I bought out every single shop item, I gained a card that would have lowered the cost, not that it would have mattered anyway. Food items also drop much more often from enemies, so I survived very well off of them and didn’t die very often.

It also doesn’t help that the bosses felt more or less like a complete joke. They all have simple and easily telegraphed patterns and I could breeze past most of them. The ones that I did struggle with only took as long as they did because the game didn’t communicate weaknesses very well. Against the Coral Siren, you’re supposed to figure out you can temporarily trap her by completely drilling away the section of floor they’re supposed to land on with the Gastro Drill transformation. Against the Octo Siren, you’re supposed to figure out on your own that the Shock and Seer dances are your best friends. If you can’t figure these things out on your own, then the battles just take longer than they should. The final boss didn’t require any special pattern, but having a full stock and maxed out magic let me basically sit back and let the Scimitar take care of them.

Even the first Siren isn't too challenging.

While I do like the interconnected world, I found the size a little unwieldy, especially when aiming for 100% completion, since even with the Warp Rooms it takes a while to find your way back to certain areas and there aren’t any major landmarks to help you find your way without looking at the map a lot. There are so many hidden items and secrets, including many that don’t count toward the percentage, that I eventually gave up on the idea and just went for the ending. After ten hours, I wound up with around 70% completion, which really says something about the amount of optional content. If you do get 100%, then your reward is a trophy and new artwork, but you’ll get another if you also somehow speedrun 100%. At that point, you’re better off using a guide, considering how often you’ll be blindly using the Seer dance otherwise.

The shift from a 2.5D graphical style, as in Half-Genie Hero, to a fully 2D one works, as it lets the game look more consistent and show off the full talent of the artists. For the first time in the series, the cutscenes are also fully animated and while I wouldn’t call them TV quality like the back of the box claims, and the subtitles were a little faster than the audio, they look very good and make me wonder what else they could do to push the cutscenes in future games. Props too for managing to get the intro animated by Studio Trigger, since it looks gorgeous and does a good job of pumping the player up.

The cutscenes are now fully animated.

That said, I felt a little bothered that despite updating the art style for the character portraits, the sprites are largely recycled from Half-Genie Hero, which I guess would make that the official art style going forward. I know it likely saved on development costs, which I can understand, but it felt odd recognizing that after watching the art style change between games. During my playthrough, I also experienced some slight glitching the first time I viewed the intro and one of the cutscenes, but these played normally on subsequent viewings.

I noticed more voiced lines this time around, both in-game and during cutscenes, which I enjoyed. If the budget ever gets big enough, I’d like to see a future Shantae game have full voice acting on every line, since the actors are good in their roles, especially Cristina Vee, who once again pulls double duty as Shantae and Risky Boots while making them sound distinct from each other. As for the soundtrack, I liked it fine enough, but most of the tracks lacked the same punch that Jake Kaufman’s compositions had for the previous games and were more forgettable as a result.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens represents a strong step forward for the franchise and fixes some of the issues with Half-Genie Hero through an increase in content. However, going for 100% takes a little too long than it probably should and some items are hidden just a bit too well. I hope that WayForward can further refine the series’ core mechanics going forward, especially in regards to the unique Transformation Dance mechanic, and think of how best to handle characters like Sky going forward. Even with its blemishes, however, this game is still worth picking up for fans of Shantae and those who aren’t familiar with the series and are looking for a solid Metroidvania with charming characters.

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