Today, I’m delving into the world of metroidvania style gaming with the multi-platform release, Shantae: ½ Genie Hero. In case you didn’t know, metroidvania games are side-scrolling platformers in often large worlds with a non-linear progression. What this means is that some areas are initially impassable and require the acquisition of new abilities or items to become accessible. So, basically, huge platformers with character upgrades.
As a brief history, this is actually the fourth game in a series. While the planning for the original game Shantae started back in 1994, it wasn’t actually released until it debuted on the Gameboy Colour in 2002. The game reviewed well but sold poorly. Despite this financial failure, Wayforward Technologies saw the promise in the series and pushed on with a sequel, Shantae: Risky’s Revenge. This was initially release for the Nintendo DS in 2010 and has since been ported over to iOS, Steam, Wii U and the PS4. After the original game was ported to the 3DS virtual console in 2013, the next game, Shante and the Pirate’s Curse received a 2014 release on the 3DS and eventually moved over to Steam, Xbox One and PS4. Which leads us to the focus of this article, 2016’s Shantae ½ Genie Hero. Funded through Kickstarter, the game is currently available on Steam, Wii U, Xbox One, PS4 and PS Vita. I myself own the Xbox One version.
As a side note here, I was completely unaware of the franchise until I picked up the third game on Steam via a Humble Bundle. While various characters cross over between games, there’s no requirement to play any of the previous games in order to understand what’s going on. The plotlines are self-contained and straight-forward enough that you can pretty jump in anywhere. All you really need to know with ½ Genie Hero is that you play as Shantae, a belly-dancing half-genie that is assigned as the protector of Scuttle Town. As appears to be the norm, the pesky pirate Risky Boots is hatching a nefarious plan that you must stop in order to secure the peace and safety of the land. For added effect, the fate of the Genie Realm is also now at stake, which is particularly important as this is where Shantae’s Mother currently resides. So, grab those harem pants and let’s see what adventures are in store!
In terms of general gameplay, Shantae has a lot of different tools at her disposal. In the beginning, her only weapon is her hair. While that may not sound overly impressive, one well-timed whip with her long purple locks does a good amount of damage. Of course, it doesn’t do enough to immediately dispense with every enemy, but that’s not an issue. You see, over time, you can purchase a number of different hair products that not only power up the physical effectiveness of the attack, but also increase the speed at which you can whip your hair back and forth. And if that isn’t enough, there are also a ton of unlockable and upgradable magic add-ons including fire attacks, protective bubbles, and a whirling dervish of pike balls.
If hair and magic add-ons don’t float your boat though, then don’t forget that Shantae is also a professional belly dancer as well as a guardian genie. The dancing serves a purpose too; while Shakira’s hips are incredibly honest, Shantae’s have the far more useful ability to transform her into various different forms that allow her to complete certain tasks. That ledge too high to reach? Try using monkey, spider or harpy Shantae to get up there. Massive rock blocking your path? That’s no problem for elephant Shantae. Need to explore the depths? Simply turn into a mermaid or a crab. Then there’s Shantae’s bat, mouse, tree, jug and other various forms. Each one comes with its own stats for power, speed and jump height, each has its own built-in special ability, and there are a bunch of additional actions that you can find hidden throughout levels to add some oomph to your alternate forms too. What that means is that each form drastically alters the way that you play any part of any level. It also opens up some additional options for you.
Herein lies, for me at least, the strongest point of Shantae ½ Genie Hero. The level designs are really quite intelligent, and I honestly cannot praise Wayforward enough for this. There are obvious ways forward, and there are some very clear alternative paths that you can see early on and just know that you’ll need to come back to later on when you have a suitable transformation dance. There are also some not so obvious paths that you could easily miss if you aren’t careful. For example, if you don’t realise that you can clear gaps with elephant Shantae’s charge, you’ll miss some hidden rooms. In the same way, if you don’t pay attention to where levels appear to go further up with no visible ceiling in sight, you’ll miss some prime locations that harpy or spider Shantae could reach. Other times, you can see some elusive chests and treasure pots sitting just above or below you, and you end up needing to find the way into the relevant area. That sheer amount of potential exploration gives plenty of scope for you to come back to levels time and time again.
Of course, there’s more to it all than simply exploring for some more treasure. For one, there are two endings for the game. If you take the quickest route to confront Risky Boots in her lair, then you’ll get the bad ending. Traversely, if you do some hunting around for particular other items, you can use these to find the secret item that unlocks the good ending. On top of that, finding all the items in the game also has favourable results. For one, finding all the gallery keys will result in the Scuttle Town Mayor giving you an item that will make life so much easier in the final level. You’ll also unlock some additional bonus art for finishing the game with 100% of the items collected. Then, after you complete the game, you unlock Hero Mode wherein you can play through the game all over again with your primary transformation dances already present at the start. Finish that with all items under a particular time limit and you’ll unlock the final two pieces of bonus art. These are all little things of course, but they do add up to give the game some real replayability value. Oh, and some of the hidden collectibles are also very useful in the long run; extra hearts, extra moves, and more money to purchase upgrades with all come in useful when you’re heading off to face a bad ass pirate with an evil plan!
The game is set to gain some further modes too. Among the goals set on Kickstarter were the inclusion of two additional missions and a costume change with rebalanced stats. On top of that, the ability to play as not only Shantae’s friends Sky, Rottytops and Bolo, but also the nefarious Risky Boots herself, each with their own abilities and storylines, was also funded. My understanding is that the Risky Boots mode will be the first to appear as DLC. My guess is that this is because Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse jettisoned the transformation dances in favour of using Risky’s arsenal of weapons instead, so the core elements of gameplay are already in place. The question is whether or not the DLC will be free or something that you have to pay for. Personally, I loathe having to pay for DLC in most cases. Such was my enjoyment of this game though that I will pay for the additional modes if need be, providing they aren’t overpriced. Until then though, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for them to be freebies.
Moving away from gameplay for a moment, some praise should also be given to character design and animation. Quite aside from the game title being a direct reference to Ranma ½, there is a visible anime influence to the way that the game looks. The bright vibrant colours really bring the characters to life too, and no one ever seems to be standing still. There are plenty of little touches ranging from different characters having different ways of walking or standing to a myriad of facial expressions. While the main cast all seem to be what could be termed well-endowed women (apart from the lead males, Bolo and Uncle Mimic, of course), there is actually a great deal of diversity in body shape on display if you pay attention to the background characters. We’ve got men and women, adults and children, big people, small people, and plenty of different outfits in there. The enemies are all pretty interesting too. Throughout the game you’ll find yourself facing series regulars and Risky minions the Tinkerbats, projectile shooting cacti, armed soldiers and a whole lot more. Not only that, but most of the bosses are huge (and in the case of Wilbur, a wee bit creepy).
As far as the audio goes, the game features some real earworms. The general level music is such that you’ll likely find yourself humming it for a time after playing, and the one vocal track – Dance Through The Danger – is a funky little piece. Outside of the grunts and cries of pain, there isn’t as much voice acting as you’d get in something like Halo. What there is is fine though. Some of the characters have a few lines during otherwise text-based conversations, and both Shantae’s voice and the aforementioned Dance Through The Danger is provided by long time anime and video game VA Cristina Vee. If you don’t know her name, then you may still know some of her dub work. She’s worked on (among others) K-On, Love Live!, Digimon Adventure Tri, Blazblue, League of Legends and some Crunchyroll promos.
So, with all this praise, is there anything that the game can be criticised for? Well, while some levels can be (more than) a little frustrating, it is pretty easy to whip through them if you aren’t too worried about collecting everything. In that respect, the difficulty of the game is perhaps lower than some would like. That being said, I haven’t tried Hardcore Mode yet, which is said to ramp up the difficulty quite considerably. Looking at it though, what do you expect from this sort of game? Some of the old classics in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise can be smashed through in a very short period of time but are still well regarded. Shantae ½ Genie Hero will likely take you longer than those legends of platforming. Given that the game is available for a fairly modest price too, I do feel that you get more than you’re paying for here. I mean, who’s gonna look at this and honestly expect it to be as long as something like Witcher 3?
In short, Shantae ½ Genie Hero is a deceptively smart game hiding behind a simple, colourful mask. It plays smoothly, it’s far from linear, and it offers plenty for players that want hidden collectibles. On top of that, when the DLC appears, the game will be further expanded for those that want more. Given the low price and the sheer quality, I cannot recommend this enough. Whether you think it’ll be a long-term favourite or a short term time waster, it would be hard to be disappointed with this latest instalment in the Shantae franchise, and I for one hope that there’ll be more games to come.
Final Score: 5 / 5