Review: Shantae: Half-Genie Hero (PC)

The Guardian Genie of Scuttle Town returns for yet another marvelous adventure in Shantae: Half-Genie Hero.

Shantae: Half-Genie Hero (PC)
Score: 9/10

Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, PS Vita
Release Date: 12/20/2016
Developed by WayForward
Published by WayForward (Physical versions published by XSEED)

(Note: This review was conducted using both the Early Access Kickstarter build and the full retail release.)

Long before DuckTales Remastered, Double Dragon Neon and Mighty Switch Force, WayForward graced the Game Boy Color with Shantae in 2002. The handheld-exclusive platformer stared the titular belly-dancing half-genie on her debut mission to protect Scuttle Town from the onslaught of the pirate Risky Boots and her army of Tinkerbat minions. Despite having just four titles, WayForward’s Shantae franchise developed a significant fanbase over the last 14 years: The recent release of Shantae: Half-Genie Hero exists thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign held back in 2013; though Bayonetta was the official pick among “realizable characters” for Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS, the internet community made a strong push for the once Nintendo-exclusive purple-haired defender of Scuttle Town to be the next Smash Bros. DLC character. The original Shantae is somewhat of a white whale for game collectors, as an in-box Game Boy Color cartridge can easily set collectors back $300.

Half-Genie Hero replaces the Game Boy Color installment as the new origin story of the series: Shantae is a half-genie raised under the eyes of Uncle Mimic after the disappearance of her full-blooded genie mother. The purple-haired heroine is awakened and led to a mysterious cavern by an apparition of the Genie Realm; the formless entity warns Shantae of a coming “agent of darkness” that threatens the existence of both the human world and the Genie Realm. With news of an unseen threat on the horizon, Shantae and Uncle Mimic begin construction of the Dynamo, an electrical device from “the old world” capable of weaponizing magic. Construction comes to a brief halt when Shantae’s pirate nemesis Risky Boots launches an attack on Scuttle Town. One of Risky’s Tinkerbats swipes the Dynamo blueprints from Uncle Mimic in the ensuing chaos, only to be returned after Shantae defeats Risky and her new Tinkerslug tank-ship- the “P.O.O.P.T.O.O.T”. With Risky Boots temporarily out of the way, Shantae is free to explore the various regions of Sequin Land for the remaining components required to complete the Dynamo before the nameless evil force arrives.

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Entertaining as it may be, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero resides within the franchise’s safe zone, refusing to linger away from the standard Shantae formula- Shantae learns of future peril, Risky steps in as an inconvenience, the quest continues, the true evil is revealed in the latter half of the game. Those looking for a Shantae that deviates from the franchise as much as each game’s individual art style may be disappointed, but that’s not to say the ride isn’t fun and enjoyable from start to finish. Half-Genie Hero continues to thrive on what makes the series so popular- its self-awareness, lighthearted humor and eccentric cast of characters.

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After the unexpected team-up of Shantae and Risky Boots in Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, the fourth chapter returns to the series’s focus on transformation and puzzle-based gameplay. For chronology’s sake (i.e. Half-Genie Hero, Shantae, Risky’s Revenge, Pirate’s Curse), Shantae has all of her magical abilities back in her possession, allowing players to transform the half-genie into various animals and a plethora of new forms. Shantae becomes one of several different animals after a magical belly dance, however the animal in question was originally determined by the length players held down a specific button; this mechanic has been simplified to letting players activate Shantae’s dance, then selecting a transformation with the D-Pad or joystick. In typical “Metroidvania” fashion, players must revisit each level once they acquire a new form. Progression-based items can only be obtained by exploring previously blocked parts of each level, such as using the Crab and Monkey forms to dive underwater or reach a stranded chef in the first stage of the game. The available transformations rotate in time with the music across three different sets, giving players a whopping 12 accessible dances- progression pending:

Shantae has her signature Monkey, Elephant and Mermaid forms allowing her to crawl up walls, bash through rocks and freely swim underwater, but the latest installment adds the abilities to transform into a hovering Bat, a Spider that clings to ceilings, a hardened Crab with sharp claws, a flying Harpy, and a bewilderingly¬†small Mouse to infiltrate tight areas. Extra dances can be purchased from a literal snake [oil] saleswoman hidden in each level; these additional techniques can restore Shantae’s health, destroy all enemies on the screen, or even turn Shantae into a tree that spawns health items in the form of Oranges. As part of the 2013 Kickstarter campaign, the majority of extra transformations were designed and picked by fans- along with the previously mentioned snake-woman, to be later refined by WayForward.

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Half-Genie Hero is designed around Shantae’s numerous transformations, however these aren’t her only defense against the monsters of Sequin Land. As with the other Shantae titles, the purple-haired half-genie can attack enemies with a quick whip of her ponytail. While the range can’t be increased, players can buy Shampoo from the Scuttle Town Item Shop to increase the speed and damage of Shantae’s hair. The general concept of “magic”¬†was absent from Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse for story reasons, however the half-genie once again has access to magical techniques all tied to her Magic gauge. Once the player purchase a magical attack from the Item Shop, it will be permanently stored in the inventory; magical attacks include summoning Pike Balls and Scimitars that orbit Shantae until her Magic gauge is empty, the Bubble shield that nullifies enemy projectiles, and shoot a Flamethrower and multiple Fireballs from her hands. Another new ability for the series, Shantae can also summon a storm cloud that shoots lighting at anything that travels underneath.

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Rather than opt for the interconnected world of Shantae: Risky’s Revenge, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero once again favors individual levels as seen with Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, only this time with Sky and her pet bird Wrench as Shantae’s mode of transport. The spirit of adventure is still present as each level requires players to do a hefty amount of exploration, however players no longer have a Map system to track previously visited areas. Levels are significantly smaller than in its predecessors, with most separated into four or five sections divided by an optional save point. What the game may lack in expansiveness, Half-Genie Hero offers a ton of gameplay variety across its six levels. Shantae’s journey to find the Dynamo components will lead her into all sorts of perilous situations, including a frantic escape from a tower-devouring sand worm, an underwater Shoot-Em-Up sequence, a trip down an industrial slide filled with barrels and gaps, a tense dash across the Ammo Baron’s warships, and even a magic carpet race. Players are met with a tense boss fight at the end of each level, some of which require a bit of lateral thinking to conquer, such as the Giga Mermaid and the memory-eating sand worm “Wilbur”.

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When players aren’t exploring the regions of Sequin Land, they can rest alongside one of the Shantae franchise’s strongest pulls, the quirky cast of supporting characters. Though none of them are playable at any point in the series, Shantae’s companions have enough individual personality to easily carry themselves in their own standalone spin-offs. Outside the series mainstays Uncle Mimic, Sky, Bolo and the zombie tease Rottytops, there’s plenty of playful banter and self-aware humor to be found when chatting with the other NPCs (non-playable characters) of Scuttle Town, and returning antagonists Ammo Baron, Techno Baron and the Hypno Baron. Series antagonist Risky Boots is finally available as an unlockable character complete with her own original campaign, however her Story Mode is not yet available in the final build.

A new character was included in the final release thanks to an achieved Kickstarter stretch goal: “Holly Lingerbean” appears as a rival half-genie in the running for the position of Scuttle Town’s Guardian Genie, however her appearance is unfortunately underutilized; while she does play an important role in Shantae’s chaotic adventure, Holly Lingerbean’s existence is limited to just a few cutscenes spread across the Scuttle Town central hub, and two other levels.

Gameplay is relatively unchanged between installments, though each entry in the Shantae series comes with its own unique visual style, partially due to the platform of each game’s release. Following three games developed exclusively for handhelds, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is the first game to release for multiple platforms at launch. The latest visual theme appears to blend all three of the previous chapters together, featuring the cartoonish nature of the GBC title and the sprites found in the DSiWare and 3DS games, and the expressive poses found in the Pirate’s Curse artwork contributed by Mega Man Zero developer Inti Creates. The characters and monsters of Sequin Land have always been a lively bunch, but the new high-definition visual scheme allows the world to convey an even stronger sense of energy, especially in Scuttle Town where everything subtly bounces in time with the latest rendition of the classic Scuttle Town theme.

DuckTales Remastered, BloodRayne: Betrayal and Mighty Switch Force Composer Jake Kaufman returns once again to provide the soundtrack for Half-Genie Hero. As with the previous Shantae games, the Middle Eastern inspired music perfectly backs the joyous attitude of the titular belly-dancing half-genie. Players who watch the subtle animations of each character may notice that even the in-game characters are constantly bouncing to the rhythm of the soundtrack. Half-Genie Hero also employs the fantastic technique of using a vocalized rendition of the main theme- performed by Jake Kaufman and voice actress Christina Vee- to excite players before embarking on their grand adventure; the same effect can be found in Platinum Games’s The Wonderful 101.

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Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is one of the best platformers to come out of 2016, and a friendly reminder that good things continue to stem from Kickstarter. Shorter levels keep the fourth installment from perfection, but the quirky cast of returning characters, fantastic soundtrack and return to transformation-based gameplay are sure to please longtime fans of the series.

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