The Shantae series is one that has recently gained steam among the gaming community as a quality franchise of spectacular platformers. This was shown by the development of their most recent game, funded almost entirely on Kickstarter, amassing around $750,000. With three years and nearly a million dollars, WayForward was tasked to make a proper sequel to the acclaimed Pirate’s Curse, and for a while, the hype leading up to the game’s release (following a three month delay) seemed to encourage something spectacular in the making. Its release marked a pivotal moment in the franchise’s history, establishing itself as a potential powerhouse with four games—and likely more coming—under its belt. It’s been a long time coming for Shantae, but its late season renaissance is as magical a run as one would expect from a half-genie hero.
Half-Genie Hero does little to deviate from traditional formula within the franchise. Shantae wakes up to encounter an ominous conflict. Risky Boots stirs up trouble and leaves Shantae with the brunt of the blame from the town’s goofy mayor. Adventures ensue with key items to find scattered around the land. It’s a game that reuses and enhances the experiences that made the Shantae franchise what it is and rolls with it. That in mind, it’s simple to its very core, whether in regards to story, characters, or artwork, as all are fairly straightforward and easy to register. It’s almost disappointing to see so much change with the transition from in-game spritework to fully-blown drawn animations without much regard for any other aspect of the game. Still, one could say that the results are within the level of enjoyability that made the Shantae series as lovable as they are.
Upon loading the game, what becomes immediately apparent is the extravagantly minimalist art design. Gone are the sprites that made the game so deliciously retro. Half-Genie Hero exerts a fashion sense that speaks to modern times with its near chibi-like, colorful cast. Eyes are long and pointed, color is hued to the most vibrant of hues, and every character gets an HD-esque upgrade from previous games. It’s definitely a stark change for veteran players, but newcomers will likely prefer the change and find it hard to go back to the spritework (shame as that may be). Aside from characters, the backgrounds and aesthetic environments are all vastly detailed and well-defined within their settings. Back are the “one-type” levels that have a main theme, whether it be “swamp level” or “spooky level.” There is some variety to them, but not much to really distinguish them outside of a single word. A small nitpick, but some sky environments feel a little too “brushstroked.” Clouds feel like a simple sway and swish from a brush. There’s minimalist, then there’s too minimalist. Despite this, the artwork and design are all splendid and very easy to immerse oneself in. It’s the context of it all that makes it feel a little empty.
It’s a common perception of the most, ahem, “dedicated” critics to identify trends and how they equate to the quality of a specific subject. One trend I’ve found to be quite prevalent (though not necessarily new) is that when something shows to be completely fresh and new in one aspect, the other aspects tend to remain within the realm of their own comfort. This is a nice way of saying that they’re not up to par with the expectations set by the single, extraordinary aspect. With Half-Genie Hero, the art and design of the game takes center stage, awing the crowd with its grandeur. Unfortunately, not everyone is so taken by the outer exteriors and wish for something more ambitious deeply below. Where the art shines and the gleams of radiance bedazzle some, the story, the writing, the level design, the soundtrack, and the character hijinks are all far below the expectations set by Pirate’s Curse.
At first glance, there’s a clear emphasis on making the levels feel more streamline, more left to right (usually) and beginning to end. Almost like games such as Mega Man. While this isn’t necessarily a fault on its own, one might miss the balance of this type of streamline and the exploration of more typical Shantae games from Pirate’s Curse. It makes Half-Genie Hero, in comparison, feel a lot more linear in its progression, something most Metroidvania fans loathe. To re-open this same wound, as past Shantae games allow you to re-explore former areas at your own pace, Half-Genie Hero requires you to go back to previous stages almost immediately after beating the level after it in order to advance the game. Not only is the player pushed back into levels they’ve already played that are still fresh in their mind, but it causes said areas to lose their essence of individuality as they become a dump site for all sorts of things one couldn’t get going through the first time.
The structure of these levels also cause some concern for veteran fans of the series, as there’s almost nothing to them. While the puzzles and the constant use of a number of Shantae’s transformations make the areas easy to maneuver and fun to traverse, there’s so little of it that one could beat it in under ten minutes, should they know what they’re doing. Previous games had overworlds that harbored a theme and played it out to extreme levels, then provided a dungeon that served as the “meat” of the meal. Here, the meat is ripped into tiny pieces and scattered around a single plate. Again, the linearity makes these areas feel too much like levels in a game than environments worth getting immersed in. The constant use of going back to previous levels to grab random items conveniently needed to advance the “plot” is padding at its finest and bumps up the total runtime to twice as much as it probably should. There’s an achievement one can receive on Steam for beating the game within two hours. Two hours.
There’s this odd phenomenon in writing within this game that a lot of (typically random) characters embellish. The short, quick sentences that serve to prolong the point. Something that’s meant to make a character seem paranoid and somewhat crazy? Kind of like this. Y’know? Always mumbling. Never really saying anything. Whatever and such. Yeah. With an occasional character, it’s fine, but there are a good number of characters (including established characters) that have a bit of this added in for whatever reason. The writing seems to have taken a turn for the quick to add in both the wit and parody present in most games while getting to the point (or prolonging it for comedy). Otherwise, dialogue consists of the one-shot personalities of the characters. Sometimes charming, sometimes not. A far cry from what it was in previous installments, but still enough to satisfy most.
While not usually a large factor to my impressions of a game, the soundtrack for Half-Genie Hero is almost as forgettable as Risky’s Revenge‘s. Only a few tracks really stand out to me, while most serve their purpose for the setting of the environment. There’s an impressive amount of variety in music, however, as the levels change rooms, which gives a lot of music to listen to in general. The sound seems to be a sultry mix of a variety of different instruments, combined with electronic doo-dads and just a touch of dubstep (which I don’t personally care for). Classic themes return in the form of remixes, and there are a large number of new tracks (or other remixes I simply can’t recognize) for new players to listen to. Very few really evoke any tension or weight to a particular area, but its upbeat fashion is sure to get some head bobs out of some.
I realize I’ve been comparing this game to Pirate’s Curse quite a bit, as I feel I should be. Pirate’s Curse established a course for the Shantae series that lit the fire in such a tremendously positive burst that I couldn’t help but feel enthusiastic as to how far they’d take it. Everything just felt right; the characters, the depth of the story, the writing, the structure of the world. Half-Genie Hero struggles in a lot of these areas, however there is one thing in particular that I’ve yet to really address: the gameplay.
If not for the art, gameplay would be the biggest benefactor of Half-Genie Hero. Controls are tight and fluidly responsive. Controls are mapped to comfortable, attainable locations and everything worked to impressive degrees. Except for hooks. Hooks are evil. Enemies and battling and platforming are all present in the highest quality, along with a variety of different things to do in-between. The difficulty of puzzle-solving is a tad simple, but a few managed to add some genuine thought to the environment of the level. Along with puzzle-solving, the overall difficulty of the game is, again, a tad simple. Bosses aren’t exactly hard to figure out (some are simply susceptible to hammering the attack button), while the only degree of difficulty one could probably have is solving how to collect all the miscellaneous items. Running through each area has its own challenges, but with how short each area is, one likely won’t have a lot of trouble with it. If nothing else, it’s fun. A kind of fun one could have with a large number of games without that lasting impression that a few special games have, unfortunately.
Everything about this installment feels rushed, rushed in the sense that everything is too straightforward and simplistic. The characters only serve specific purposes and little else, the levels are quick, left to right gauntlet runs, and the story is a typical good vs. evil narrative of world-threatening proportions, on top of a treasure hunt. A review I read while editing this post referred to the title as a “Soft reboot,” which I think fits the style of the game well. Though, I wouldn’t call it a “reboot” as much as I’d call it “soft.” It’s similar to that of The Legend of Zelda’s Skyward Sword, a game whose quality is divided among the fanbase for being “too linear” and “sticking too close to the script.” Half-Genie Hero is similar in that regard, as it takes a lot of what made the previous Shantae games great and blends it into a simple, easy format that everyone can be accustomed to. Not everyone will appreciate it, though.
From an objective angle, there isn’t too much about Half-Genie Hero that hampers its quality to horrid status, something that remains fickle to many critics alike. It is the context that makes the game less than meets the eye, as those who have played previous installments know that the game is capable of so much more. These subjective qualms add up to create an asteroid of complaints that drag the game into the depths of mediocrity. With three years and $750,000, WayForward gave birth to a purring kitten; cute and cuddly, but will never obtain the ferocity paved by Pirate’s Curse‘s lion-esque presence.
Final Score: 5.5/10
The rating for this title and more can (eventually) be found on MyVideoGameList.