I’ve always been curious about Shantae games because of the intense devotion of its fanbase, consistently good reviews and stylish aesthetics. The series has never known mainstream success but lived happily in the niche category. But when I randomly played a level of Half-Genie Hero at E3 last year, I began to understand why fans of this series are so dedicated—there is something special here.
I can’t tell you if this is their best one or a step down because it’s the only one I’ve played. But I can tell you it’s their biggest Shantae yet and the first non-handheld game as it was released on all the major consoles. I can also tell you it’s one of the most inventive platformers I’ve ever played. And it’s got style, lots and lots of style.
Shantae is a half-genie as I’m sure you can guess by the title. And she’s the protector of a town, but things aren’t going so well so she must help her uncle build a device to shield the town from attackers, thus sending her on a journey to many colorful and inventive levels to get parts for the machine. Naturally, these levels are full of enemies, bottomless pits, secret areas and giant bosses.
To deal with these many challenges, she can jump, whip enemies with her hair and buy offensive and defensive magic from a shop. She also gains the ability to turn herself into a variety of animals and that’s the real fun of the game. Because not only are the animals a ridiculously cute animal version of her, they allow her to reach previously unreachable areas of each level. Even though you’ll have to do the same levels over and over, you’ll get to explore brand new parts and obtain even more useful powers.
As I said, the animal versions of her are adorable, but each also has a specific power. The monkey is not only the cutest but allows you to jump extra high and stick to walls. The elephant lets you charge through breakable walls or stomp the ground to unearth items. The crab, which made me laugh every time I turned into it, lets you go underwater and skitter between the smallest of crevices. And the blobfish, well, I won’t tell you what the blobfish does, I’ll let you discover that yourself! Turning into animals is not only fun and cool, it makes every level a bit of a puzzle. You have to pay close attention to every area to ensure you don't miss out on an important new upgrade.
The levels themselves are quite creative and although you’ll have to go through them multiple times, it doesn’t feel like too much of a chore due to the incredible graphics and inventive level design. One that stands out is the mermaid factory where someone is making fake mermaids by kidnapping women and having fish jump out of the water and bite and hold onto their lower half so it looks like a fish tail. That's funny! There are assembly line hooks with girls tied to them whizzing behind you throughout the level. And when you beat the level, you get to come back to it and ride those same hooks to access new areas. That's clever! Funny and clever, two words that describe this game perfectly.
The regular enemies in each level are wacky and amusing, but the bosses are outstanding. They're big, visually impressive, kind of scary and a lot of fun to fight. Yes, fun! Even when they’re hard, it never feels unfair or goes on too long and becomes annoying. And the way you beat them is different for each boss and some of the fights are very inventive. I normally hate fighting bosses but loved it in this game.
I’ve mentioned the graphics before, but I can’t stress enough how gorgeous this game looks, right down to the tiniest detail. Everything feels alive, bursting with color and wonderfully realized. One of the prettiest 2D games on any system. The character designs are great too. It’s one of those rare games that borrows some aesthetics from Japanese games and implements them in a natural way that doesn’t look forced or embarrassing. A pleasant mix of styles.
The game’s funny too! And not just the dialog, but there’s a wonderfully fun comedic feeling that permeates every part of the game. From setups to level designs to character designs to just about every part. It feels like you’re playing a really funny cartoon.
The music is also worth mentioning. There are some nice tunes! I found myself humming along to songs while playing levels and I’m not a hummer. Normally. I also don’t like jazz, but the smooth jazzy song from the bathhouse was so good, I would leave it on as background music while I did other things.
The only minor flaws of the game were the difficulty level and confusing lack of direction sometimes. The game gives you hints where to go, but some are fairly vague leaving me to do levels over and over unnecessarily. And the game got easy too fast. It was difficult when it started, but didn’t take long until I had lots of heart containers and enough food and potions to get through anything.
But these quips were not enough to seriously detract from the overall experience, which was charming and enjoyable. This game’s got spirit and the people who made it clearly put their hearts and souls into it. Now I see why Shantae fans are so devoted!
Hint: Explore everything and take notes of where you couldn't get to before. This game is full of secrets that will be unlocked as you get new powers!
by Urian Brown
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