Three years have passed since WayForward Technologies pulled in an impressive $776,084 to fund the fourth game in its premiere Shantae franchise. Hint: that's a lot longer than Mighty No. 9 took to develop and properly release, but nobody gave WayForward as much crap.
However, the evidence is clear that the extra year WayForward sank into making Shantae: Half-Genie Hero helped it become a much better game. For the first time since the series launched in 2002, WayForward gravitated away from traditional pixel art and, instead, rendered the titular heroine, her friends and rivals, and their colorful world with high-resolution hand-drawn animation that is best viewed on the latest consoles and PC platforms.
So naturally, we're reviewing the PS Vita version.
Sayonara my fair, pixelated ladies
Now, we can all have our opinions about hand-drawn art versus pixel art, and it's a discussion we can carry on into the deep hours of the night. The pixel art was half of what made Shantae special over the years, and I think it loses something in the transition to this new style.
However, the whole point of this project was to give the star and her franchise a new look, and in that regard, it succeeds.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero looks great, almost like you're playing a cartoon. Occasionally, the backdrop images don't match the quality of the action taking place front and center, but it's hardly enough to offset the experience as a whole. Shantae herself continues to be one of the most expressive characters in the 2D platforming world, and her wide assortment of animal transformations all deserve an adorable snuggle.
If I had any complaints about the visuals, it's that the new rotating Scuttle Town in this game gives me seriously motion sickness. Ugh… The PS Vita version sometimes chugs in the busier areas of the game, too.
Shantae breaking into newer audiences on platforms she's never appeared on would have been impossible without this swap to a more modern art style. It succeeds in carrying on the spirit of the first three games well enough, just like any soft reboot should.
And yes, I do mean that this is a soft reboot
"Soft reboot" is the only way to describe this game because that's exactly what it is, at least when compared to the phenomenal Shantae and the Pirate's Curse. It's a lot like The Force Awakens in that there's plenty of fan-service for those who know the established rules and lore, but the new stuff… doesn't really get anywhere.
For example, there is a beautiful moment in The Pirate's Curse when Shantae thinks she might have stumbled across the spirit of a dead friend in the underworld. WayForward doesn't exactly spell it out… but the player slowly starts to realize who this person is over several interactions. The second this spirit's identity dawns on Shantae, and the player for that matter, is a shockingly heavy moment.
Taking it a step further, when she questions that friend's brothers about it, they uncomfortably shift the subject with a sense that they would rather not talk about it. We never find out why.
Whoa! I thought I was just playing a silly platforming game where a sassy genie girl whacks pirates with her hair! Is this narrative depth and genuine emotion? What's going on here?!
In Half-Genie Hero, the same character shows up, but all she does is take Shantae to a flying carpet race… that's it. Her main role in the story ends there.
The same goes for many of the series' usual allies and villains. Uncle builds things. Bolo is a dummy. Shantae's pirate nemesis Risky Boots, the same one whose character was deconstructed and shown to have a much more gentle and submissive side in the previous game, shows up to ransack Scuttle Town, loses the fight to Shantae as usual, and that's it. She vanishes for most of the game.
Oh, she shows ups again, sure, but she loses another fight… and vanishes with a promise of revenge. It's like The Pirate's Curse never happened, and Shantae and Risky have a silent agreement to ignore the vulnerable moments they shared and just carry on a generic hero/villain rivalry.
All the Barons also come back as a "villain of the week," and I even gave an awkward sigh when a character comes rushing off screen to inform Shantae that one of them was about to "end the world" with a giant, vengeful spirit! Just out of nowhere in the story… poof! This villain is here, and you have to stop him!
Did WayForward hire the Marvel writers to pen this game? I didn't think $800K would be enough for that!
All of these villains appeared in the previous games, but WayForward found much smoother ways to work them into the plot. Purchasing the town and slowly transforming it over the course of the game, manipulating the dimwitted Bolo to do their dirty work. In Half-Genie Hero, they exist to lead Shantae to a new dungeon, and maybe they get a cutscene. Two if they're lucky.
More often than not, they feel jammed in more awkwardly than Princess Leia or Han Solo just to get a clap from the veterans, and they are kept shallow so as not to confused newcomers.
Believe it or not, both of the previous Shantae games had surprisingly deep stories. This one doesn't. It's a series of fetch quests that lead to a boss fight, rinse and repeat.
I get that this game might be for newcomers, and this simple approach is the best way to get them involved, but I want to see more of the drama that was left unfinished in The Pirate's Curse! Even a mention would be nice!
More Mega Man than Metroid
And we have a much more casual approach to the level design as well, a continuing descending pattern that might have gone a little too far this time. The second game in the franchise, Risky's Revenge was a full blown open world, exploration, "metroidvania" yadda yadda, you know what I mean.
WayForward was beating everyone to the punch in that genre long before the indie scene took off.
The Pirate's Curse sort of did away with that idea, and it created segmented levels that still had plenty of branching paths within them. They might not have been connected, but they inspired plenty of exploration within.
Half-Genie Hero shifts a little too far towards linear level design, and it knocks off the balance that Pirate's Curse managed to skillfully establish. Each level comprises of two stages. Usually, one of them will be a large open room with a few cracks that Shantae can use animal transformations to explore, and the other will be a full on Mega Man run 'n gun action platforming stage with minimal exploration.
At least it still delivers a ping of excitement once you find the right power-up to solve the secrets' puzzles. Some of them are as easy as stomping on a flower, though. Didn't wrack my brain over that one!
A few are pretty cool. My favorite is a new idea found in the Mouse transformation, which leads to some fun wall burrowing segments. However, the exploration and the action both take a step back from the highs that the series has reached before.
Just one more point, I was able to purchase Shantae's entire arsenal of shampoo after rushing two or three levels, meaning I had fast and strong hair from the beginning of the game. Achieving that in The Pirate's Curse took nearly the entire game, and I think it's because Half-Genie Hero throws money at you.
The game also forces backtracking, whereas the previous games only suggested players go back to find power-ups and treasures. Progression happens like this: a new stage opens up, players run through it, find a treasure, and beat a boss. Then, the hint lady at the bathhouse and other citizens suggest that if you go back into THIS stage to find a treasure and if access THIS stage to talk to this person, you might fight the next treasure you need to access the next chapter of the story.
It get's repetitive in a way that exploration games are not supposed to. It doesn't feel natural traveling back to a stage select screen, guessing as to where the next fetch quest item or power-up is, and mindlessly crawling around with the hope of finding something. Good exploration games, like The Pirate's Curse, have a subconscious pull on the player to get them to go to the right places.
Half-Genie Hero feels more like guessing, and it doesn't even have a map! Again, it's just a simpler, more casual experience that probably doesn't need one.
I'm trying not to be too hard on the game, honest!
Despite how negative I sound, I do like Shantae: Half-Genie Hero. I just think it takes the series in the wrong direction. After all of my complaints are laid out, it's still an enjoyable platformer with responsive controls, intense boss fights, and a lot more character than most games.
Shantae steals the show as she usually does, and Squid Baron is still hilarious. His fourth wall breaking jokes are the highlight of the shallow story. I also spotted a few of WayForward's fun nods towards older classics. My favorite is in the desert tower when the snakes drop from the ceiling, an obvious homage to Kid Icarus.
I'll recommend Shantae: Half-Genie Hero to newcomers, but only on the condition that you check out the other games afterwards. This is clearly an introductory course to help expand Shantae's audience, and I hope it leads those who enjoy it to check out Risky's Revenge and The Pirate's Curse, which are much better games.
And for veterans… you probably backed this on Kickstarter like I did, so a recommendation is meaningless at this point. Just be prepared for a step back from the previous two games, and you'll find an enjoyable game in here.
You might want to wait for a cheaper price. Go play The Pirate's Curse again to kill some time.
Disclaimer: We were provided a review copy of Shantae: Half-Genie Hero for the PS Vita, and we played through the campaign before writing this review.