2017 finds a lot of games leaving behind pixel art for something a bit more complicated. After years and years, the retro aesthetic has grown tired for some, and the time is right for the rest of the 2D spectrum to get a chance to shine. Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is leading the charge for this movement, releasing late in 2016 and bringing the Shantae franchise onto a home console proper for the first time. The platforming genie has had a strange history, jumping from one portable platform to the other, but a devoted fanbase has worked hard to keep the dream alive, and one successful Kickstarter later, Half-Genie Hero is here. While not reaching the platforming heights of games like Shovel Knight, WayForward's latest manages to provide a solid effort that's worth taking a look at if you've ever been curious about this cult classic series.
After experiencing a vision of an impending tragedy in her dreams, Shantae awakens to a mission from her uncle to gather parts for his latest invention. This machine will protect Scuttle Town from all future threats and give his niece a vacation from her job as the town's genie protector. Unfortunately, pirate nemesis Risky Boots attacks at the most inopportune time, and Shantae must spring into action in order to save the town once again. What follows is a rather enjoyable scavenger hunt through a series of varied environments, facing all the major foes that fans expect from a proper Shantae release, as well as a few fan additions funded via crowdfunding stretch goals.
Loading up the game, the first thing that will hit you is just how gorgeous Half-Genie Hero is. Despite being in 2D, this is a game that looks like it belongs on the PlayStation 4, with the type of subtle character animations and deep backgrounds that only come from top quality effort. No matter how fast the action gets, everything continues to naturally flow with a consistency straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon. The music accompanying these fine visuals continues a trend of excellence, with several tunes on the soundtrack that were hard to stop humming no matter how long it's been since I've played. Each level's track fits in with the style of the great melodic chiptunes of the past while also being complex modern compositions. Just like any good sequel, Half-Genie Hero's presentation pushes the Shantae games forward without losing anything that defined the franchise in the first place.
As for the platforming action, WayForward has nailed a fun an inviting style of gameplay that is approachable yet challenging. Dying is never too punishing, checkpoints are plentiful, and each jump's timing felt fair and precise. Of course, despite famously being a platformer, running and jumping is only half the experience here, and there is a great focus on finding secrets and collectibles strewn throughout each level. This is mostly where your many transformations come into play, and belly dancing into a crab or an elephant will often give you new abilities that can open up alternate paths, expand your life bar, and help you discover even more new abilities and transformations.
This type of gameplay is highly encouraged by the game, which forces backtracking at several points during the main story. To be fair, each level has a few new enemies strewn about during a second playthrough, but I still didn't feel the same excitement hunting for Monster Eggs or Sunken Souls as I did exploring a new level for the first time. It doesn't help that the game's levels aren't structured like a Metroidvania, so they're linear affairs that must be played through again each time you jump in. If there's a collectible you missed at the end of the stage, that just means you'll have to repeat the level or spend your currency on the Warp Dance instead of something more flashy. The further you get into the game, the more and more these collectible fetch quests take over the platforming, and there are a few items necessary for the good ending late in the game that are hidden behind such obscure secrets that I was reminded of the famously obtuse Milon's Secret Castle.
The game doesn't 100% require these items, but it's so highly encouraged that I can't see many players passing it up, and the frustrating hours-long hunt that will get you to the ending you want is too complicated for its own good. There are a crazy number of abilities that you can acquire, and later movement abilities make earlier sections of the game completely trivial, stripping away any platforming skill I had needed to navigate them before. By the time I actually got back to tackling the final level, I had become so rusty at the game's platforming that I found myself running up against a wall of some of the most precise jumps and sections in the game. The last level of any game should be difficult, but the distractions from the main gameplay loop hurt this game's pacing, and I was struggling to get through what should have been a triumphant run to the finish.
As I went through the levels again and again, I couldn't help but feel that the game just had too many abilities and powers. Looking at the game's Kickstarter, it seems that a lot of these extraneous features were added to the game via stretch goals, and it shows in the final product. None of the abilities really get the chance to shine, and you can tell that there was a mandate somewhere on how many times each ability had to be used. Instead of the basic design of recognizing a telltale sign, transforming, and then performing an action over and over, I would have liked to see abilities that focused on the game's strengths and added to your platforming arsenal. In focusing on all these side activities, the game really loses track of what it's bringing to the table.
In the end, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is still a great platformer that's worth seeking out. It stands with some of the greats of the 8 and 16-bit eras and modernizes a lot of genre tropes. The first class presentation draws you in, and the dialogue and humor of the game strike a balance that doesn't stray too far into the references and memes that are all too common nowadays. Instead, the game lets its genuinely likable cast of characters shine through. I just wish that Half-Genie Hero's sublime platforming was the game's focus for a little bit longer, as that would have solidified the game as a mainstream hit rather than a cult classic.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero has an amazing presentation and precise platforming that will make gamers of all ages smile. If only the game stuck to its guns instead of devolving into a tedious collectathon that shatters the game's pacing.
- Pixel Perfect Platforming Without The Pixels
- Catchy Soundtrack
- Beautiful Cartoony Graphics
- Fetch Quests
- Constant Backtracking
- Wall of Difficulty Towards the End