SHANTAE: HALF-GENIE HERO Review
I think there needs to be a new name for the “Metroidvania” genre. I’ve played a lot of these games (and plenty inspired by them) in the past year, but none of them came from either the Metroid or Castlevania franchises. In fact, both of those labels have done as much as they can to distance themselves from the unique gameplay formula they helped pioneer: Metroid is now known as a first person shooter, and Castlevania has turned into a hack’n’slash brawler.
Of all the modern incarnations of the Metroidvania, or whatever the genre should be known as henceforth, the clear leader of the pack is Shantae. WayForward’s half-human, half-genie posterchild has come to define the genre ever since her rebirth in 2010’s SHANTAE: RISKY’S REVENGE. That title, along with its sequel, SHANTAE AND THE PIRATE’S CURSE, delivered incredibly tight, textbook examples of what a Metroidvania should play like. Shantae is back with a fresh coat of paint just in time to round out 2016, but can she live up to the reputation that she’s built over the past six years?
Don’t leave us hanging!
Well, yes and no. On one hand, Shantae is just as fun a protagonist as ever, returning with her trademark animal transformations from RISKY’S REVENGE. The enigmatic sense of humor returns, along with a vaporwave-influenced soundtrack, creating a far more chilled out experience than previous outings. Together with the beautiful new hand-drawn animations and 3D backgrounds, HALF-GENIE HERO achieves an aesthetic most “old-school” titles should aspire to: feeling retro without necessarily looking retro.
On the other hand: HALF-GENIE HERO… isn’t a Metroidvania? What? To be fair, this game is decidedly more of a reboot (albeit a soft one, at that) than a sequel, falling more in line with DONKEY KONG COUNTRY or WayForward’s own DUCKTALES REMASTERED than previous installments in the series. Yet much like how Metroid and Castlevania have departed from their legacies, so does HALF-GENIE HERO stray from the path blazed by its esteemed predecessors.
Shantae still unlocks abilities over the course of the game that allow her to access hidden areas in previous stages, and she still upgrades said abilities for increased power and utility with the gems she collects, but this is done over the course of a series of linear levels, rather than the open worlds of before. It’s not that radical of a departure: PIRATE’S CURSE experimented with dividing Sequin Land into separate islands, after all, but the more obvious level select screen in HALF-GENIE HERO that can be accessed at any moment, along with the abandonment of an overarching plot in favor for a villain-a-level format, makes this latest outing feel like unfamiliar waters for returning fans.
Also unfamiliar skies
Though these gripes will only affect series veterans, they aren’t all that is wrong with HALF-GENIE HERO. In addition to being more straightforward, Shantae’s newest adventure is also the easiest we’ve seen so far. Players receive far more gems from defeated enemies and smashed jars this time around, and upgrades at the Item Shop are cheaper than ever, meaning that I was able to max out Shantae’s core abilities by the third level in HALF-GENIE HERO, a process that took all of PIRATE’S CURSE to accomplish.
Despite the overall level of excellence that defines HALF-GENIE HERO’s main quest, a very weak endgame leaves a sour taste in the player’s mouth by the time the credits roll. The final boss is divided into three stages, the latter two of which are some of the most tedious battles in gaming this year. And even though the first and third stages of said boss are pretty tough, all challenge is nullified by an artifact granting Shantae infinite magic that any player who chose to seek the “true” ending is all but guaranteed to have unlocked. It really saps all the tension from a fight when you can just spam invincibility spells and turn the big baddie into a hapless punching bag.
It’s hard not to sound harsh when reviewing this game, but the last level aside, most of my complaints about HALF-GENIE HERO are fairly benign. Shantae handles brilliantly, and even when backtracking to search for collectibles, it’s easy to forget about your fast travel spell and simply play the level over again since the gameplay is so good! In fact, the action is incredible enough to redeem even that stinker of an ending, as I had no reservations immediately starting over on new game plus to attempt a speed run with all of Shantae’s abilities unlocked from the beginning.
And speed slide, and speed roll, and speed jump…
HALF-GENIE HERO is an ambitious attempt at rebranding a fairly unambitious (though excellently realized) franchise. Series regulars may be thrown off by the brand new chassis, but the motor beneath still works. In many ways, HALF-GENIE HERO is a step down from PIRATE’S CURSE, not quite reaching the height that game soared to, but it’s also a step away in a new direction, daring to be something different, and that’s even more important. It would be a crime to recommend HALF-GENIE HERO to anyone without also steering them towards the rest of the Shantae franchise at the same time. Fortunately enough, that is one of the easiest recs that I can make.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4, also available on Xbox One, WiiU, PC and Vita