Publisher: XSEED Games (physical release)
Platform: PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One, PC, Wii U (Reviewed on PS4)
Release Date: December 20th, 2016 (December 27th for Wii U)
Price: $19.99 digital, $29.99 physical
Disclosure: The reviewer was a supporter of Shantae: Half-Genie Hero’s Kickstarter campaign and invested $25 into the project. With the intent of minimal bias, this review is in no way influenced by nor obligated to be written in the best interest of the developer and/or publisher.
WayForward is one of those developers that really excels in their chosen medium; namely the 2D platformer. While the Shantae series saw success, Kickstarter has helped elevate it to the modern console generation with a graphical overhaul. Does Shantae: Half-Genie Hero give the series the reboot it deserves? Or does it waddle in the mighty puddle of Kickstarter failures? It’s not perfect, but this game meets the high bar set by Shovel Knight for Kickstarter successes.
Half-Genie Hero starts out as expected of the series; Risky Boots is attacking Scuttle Town, you stop her in the tutorial level and boss fight. Once this is out of the way, the focus shifts to helping Uncle Mimic build a machine to lighten Shantae’s load as guardian genie.
As with Risky’s Revenge and The Pirate’s Curse before it, the overarching story is placeholder for the chapter moments. These can run the gambit from maidens being kidnapped by mermaids to finding the source behind Scuttle Town’s memory loss in the middle of the desert.
The writing for these is top-notch. It’s a perfect injection of WayForward’s style of humor and visual gags, without being cringey or overdone. These are easily the game’s biggest strengths narrative-wise, while the rest is somewhat serviceable.
While writing continues to meet the high standard for the series, Half-Genie Hero takes a huge step forward with its visual overhaul. Breaking away from pixel art for hand-drawn animation does wonders for Shantae’s art style, with everything hitting the mark in the update. Even new enemies like the Slime Girls have some of the most impressive animations I’ve seen.
These 2D assets are set alongside 3D rendered environments and levels, much like Ducktales Remastered. Thankfully, Half-Genie Hero is not as modular in appearance or level design. The 3D design helps to highlight areas that rotate around an axis like Scuttle Town and in boss fights. It sucks that there isn’t a level that takes advantage of this, such as a spiral staircase or tower.
The care taken in Shantae’s spunky tone and animation perfectly parallels the music. As expect of composer Jake Kaufman, Half-Genie Hero’s music is upbeat and video-gamey. There are some remasters of original tracks like Burning Town, but the new music introduced is just as great.
That said, it’s a shame that its actual integration has flaws (at least in the PS4 version). Transitions in tracks when hitting loading screens is met with a jarring crackle as the track cuts out. It sucks because this takes me out of the experience, and with it happening so frequently I’m forced to turn the volume down to mask it.
Audio mixing also leaves something to be desired. Shantae and Risky have the most voiced dialogue in the game, and even these are limited to single sentences. The direction is solid, but these can still be drowned out by the music. Hopefully a post-release patch will fix these issues or at least mitigate it with individual sliders, but it’s worth mentioning in this state.
Audio issues are unfortunately not Half-Genie Hero’s only problem. Most of the game runs at a buttery-smooth 60fps, even holding up in the later, more taxing boss fights. However, about half of the levels have moments that suffer from dramatic framerate drops, especially when revisiting areas. These can easily drop down to the low 40s and high 30s. Drops this severe do affect the feel of your platforming in these sections.
While I have been pretty hard on its technical foibles, Half-Genie Hero is still an excellent game. Traditional platforming and combat are the main focus, but this game also see the return of Shantae’s genie transformations.
These dances provide you with different movement options like Spider Dance for walking on ceilings and Mermaid Dance for swimming. Better dances do make some of these redundant. Still, they are all useful in some way..
What they aren’t used for is boss fights. I can only think of one particular fight where transforming was necessary, but since you can’t attack in most of these, your best bet is to stay in human form and used your magic skills. Besides that, the plentiful boss fights are my favorite aspect of the game. These take advantage of Shantae’s other skills and are not about patterns like Mega Man or Shovel Knight.
Quests in Half-Genie Hero are also similar to Pirate’s Curse. You need item A, someone has it who will exchange it for item B, you need item C to access item B, ad so on. It is a bit of a pain if you resume a save in the middle of it, but the game’s relatively small size and shorter length means that you can get back on track and clear these pretty fast.
As much as I like this game, I can’t help but feel that it’s a step down from The Pirate’s Curse. Calling Half-Genie Hero a Metroidvania like its previous entry isn’t quite the right term. Pirate’s Curse had sprawling levels with many areas inaccessible if you didn’t have the right gear. Revisiting these often meant that you’d access a whole new area with new challenges and platforming sections.
Hidden rooms are the farthest Half-Genie Hero goes from the beaten path. I can let this slide since the main levels themselves are still fun to traverse, even repeatedly. Later dances also make it more convenient to pass through these if you just need to get to a certain section for a quest.
What I won’t let slide is the lack of dungeons. These were my favorite aspect of Pirate’s Curse. Zelda-esque puzzles and navigation using you arsenal of skills was probably the highlight of Pirate’s Curse. In my time with the game, there was only one area that was even comparable.
Here, I had to use my Spider, Bat, and Harpy Dances to navigate a room of spikes with my reward being a quest item. I’m usually not one to point out missing elements, especially when the game isn’t designed around it. Still, such a fun feature being removed that I loved from its predecessor sucks.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is just what I expected from a Shantae reboot. Fun gameplay, excellent visual design, and fantastic music punctuates this experience. Seeing a return to root designs with the genie transformations adds some flavor to levels, even if it’s not really useful for boss fights. Seeing other elements not making a return like dungeons and sprawling levels is disappointing, and technical issues do interfere. Those aside, being slightly worse than The Pirate’s Curse still makes for a great game.