Review: Shantae: Half-Genie Hero (Wii U)

Shantae put all that Kickstarter money to very good use

By Andy Hoover. Posted 02/07/2017 10:00 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
Editor's Choice
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Gorgeous visuals and animations; frequently funny and ceaselessly charming; tight gameplay with a diverse set of platforming mechanics; phenomenal soundtrack
Poison Mushroom for...
Could benefit from more levels/areas to play with powers; those uninterested in speed runs and collecting every item might not find as much replay value

WayForward’s Shantae series has earned a special place in the heart of many Nintendo gamers. What started as an utter sales failure for Game Boy Color has grown into a celebrated franchise that helped inspire the indie and retro trends and continues to ride that wave. Half-Genie Hero is the fourth game in the series and the first to come to us thanks to the wonders of crowdfunding, so there is definitely a lot this game has to live up to. Does it live up to the series’ high standards? And has all those dedicated supporters’ money been put to good use? Anyone familiar with WayForward’s track record probably already knows the answer to these questions.

For the uninitiated, the Shantae games follow the titular character, a young half-genie who goes on sidescrolling adventures through the colorful world of Sequin Land, using her magic powers and whip-like hair attacks to stave off encroaching evils. Half-Genie Hero doesn’t stray far from the usual formula, as it once again brings back Shantae’s frequent opponent, the pirate Risky Boots, who is up to no good with a scheme that threatens our hero and her many colorful friends and supporting characters. The story itself might be simple, but it is supported with fantastically funny writing that is beautifully self-aware and thoroughly charming. From beginning to end, the game and the world within it show a level of confidence and character that exceeds its predecessors, which is no easy feat.

This charming cast of characters and colorful world is made all the more lovable thanks to fantastic art direction and animation. Unlike previous games, Half-Genie Hero incorporates 3D models for characters and certain items and effects, and seamlessly mixes them with gorgeous, hand-drawn backgrounds that take advantage of the higher resolutions afforded by the more powerful hardware. Some might be sad to see the retro-styled pixel art of past entries be set aside for more modern aesthetic stylings, but rest assured that nothing has been lost in the transition. Now, the more detailed graphics and incredibly smooth animation actually give the game a quality that is more cartoon-like, and the look fits the franchise’s distinct character incredibly well.

When it comes to actually playing the game, there are a few changes, but Half-Genie Hero definitely keeps close to the series’ history. This time around, the developers have brought back Shantae’s animal transformation powers that are activated through her magical dancing. Shantae can run, jump, swim, and attack baddies just fine on her own, but these transformations give her new abilities that offer specific skills needed to overcome certain obstacles. For example: becoming a monkey allows her to jump higher and cling to walls, the mermaid form allows her freely swim beneath the waves, and turning into an elephant gives the option to smash through certain obstacles. Furthermore, as the player progresses through the game and uncovers new areas, additional power-ups are discovered that further augment these animal forms, thus giving the player more tools at their disposal and an extra reason to re-examine old levels for previously inaccessible areas. Also, having recently played through the prior entry, Pirate’s Curse, I personally think this newer game plays better; everything about the controls just feels more refined, and by no means did Pirate’s Curse play poorly.

One area where long time fans might notice a difference from the last game is in the general structure of the game. The series still draws inspiration from Metroidvania games, but Half-Genie Hero feels much more streamlined. The various levels seem to have a greater focus on linearity with fewer, larger open areas and branching paths. There are still many nooks and crannies filled with new power-ups and fetch quest related items to find, but the processing of exploring everything ultimately feels simpler. Some gamers might prefer the deeper exploration of previous games, but I personally appreciated this less laborious approach, especially given the game’s reliance on those aforementioned fetch quests. That being said, the game likely could have been benefited from a few more areas or slightly more complex level designs while still feeling like an improvement over the older games. Thankfully, these changes do nothing to lessen the replay and potential speed run value of the game, both of which the game actively encourages.

Another area that Half-Genie Hero has improved is the audio. The series has always had great music and this one is no different, except for one significant factor: the actual sound quality. Just like how the visuals are now more crisp, clear, and modern, the music has received a similar upgrade. The music continues to have an exotic style like other games, but you can hear the real instruments clear as day, and the theme song (including sung lyrics) is impressively catchy. One thing I would like to see is more voice acting. Occasional lines and character names are spoken with plenty of vigor, but the game would benefit from the whole thing being voiced.

WayForward proved its considerable talent at creating fun, colorful, retro-inspired platformers long ago and each Shantae title has simply reinforced that reputation. It should come as little surprise that Half-Genie Hero continues that tradition. While some longtime fans might be somewhat turned off by the more contemporary visuals and streamlined level design, others will undoubtedly enjoy these changes. Regardless, though, the core gameplay should be more than enough to keep the majority of gamers satisfied. So, whether this is your first Shantae game or your fourth, Half-Genie Hero is a fantastic platformer that’s a pleasure to see, hear, and play.

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