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Review: Shantae: Half-Genie Hero

24 Dec 2016

Funding the Good Stuff

With licensed video games generally seen as low-effort cash grabs and the butt of many jokes amongst gamers, its hard to imagine that any developers actually want to work on these games. Seemingly even crazier is the idea that a developer would purposely focus on licensed games and still enjoy relative success for over twenty-five years. Well, surprise! There’s at least one company out there that does just that: WayForward Technologies.

Founded in 1990, WayForward didn’t really push into the video game industry until a decade later. Most of the time, they acted as kind of a freelance company, taking on various licenses and projects to develop games for interested parties. Their release history runs across a wild variety of licenses, including everything from Adventure Time to SpongeBob SquarePants and some Barbie titles.

Critical reception for these titles has been, predictably, mixed at best. Fairing better are some gaming licenses the company has worked on, with titles such as Contra 4 and DuckTales: Remastered earning general praise. However, it’s when WayForward actually steps up to create their own in-house titles that they show why they’re still alive and kicking.

Case in point: the Shantae series. The original Shantae was WayForward’s first real original IP, released for the Game Boy Color in 2002, at the tail end of that system’s life. The game received critical praise, especially as it pushed the dying system to some of its technological limits. However, with a small print run and the Game Boy Advance already on the market for a year, it ended up with low sales.

It took nearly another decade before the company would return to Shantae, releasing a sequel subtitled Risky’s Revenge digitally on the Nintendo DSi. Once again earning praise, bringing the series back on a still living console proved be the shot in the arm it needed. Shantae would go on to become a regular series and a flagship for WayForward.

In 2013, WayForward planned to push the series forward from its lo-fi roots into full HD, and so turned to Kickstarter to help fund an entry intended for modern consoles. Quickly earning its funding goal, and doubling it in the end, the campaign’s results were finally released to the world this past week.

Developed and published digitally by WayForward Technologies (with XSeed Games publishing retail versions), Shantae: Half-Genie Hero was released on December 20th, 2016. The title was released for nearly every modern console: PS4, Vita, Wii U, XBox One, and PC via Steam. We had a chance to play both the PS4 and Vita entries, with the PS4 version being the primary focus.

Genies vs. Pirates

Shantae, the resident guardian half-genie of Scuttle Town, is awoken late one night by a voice calling to her. Seeking it out, she finds a glowing ball of energy, which tells her of an impending evil before it disappears. The next day, she goes to visit her uncle in town to talk about it. However, as the town’s resident inventor, he is too busy creating what he calls the “Dynamo,” a contraption that will help protect Scuttle Town from attack.

Unfortunately, right after this…Scuttle Town is attacked. The evil pirate Risky Boots begins a siege on the town square, and her henchmen steal the blueprint for the Dynamo. Shantae manages to recover the blueprint, but lets Risky get away in the process. This, combined with the damage done to the town, leads to Shantae being fired from her position as town guardian. Not letting this get her down, Shantae decides to help her uncle seek out the components he needs to complete the Dynamo, so that Scuttle Town can still be protected.

The plot here isn’t the real focus of Half-Genie Hero, acting as more of a framing device for the gameplay rather than the primary drive to play. What is presented is done in an off-beat humorous manner, never taking itself too seriously. Some moments did manage to pull genuine laughs from me, so I would consider that a success.

The issue, though, isn’t the lack of plot, but rather how disjointed it is. Plot points come up out of nowhere, characters are introduced and then quickly forgotten, and the twists it attempts to pull are taken right from the Big Ol’ Book of Gaming Cliches. The game feels like it’s hopping between a bunch of miniature stories, rather than presenting one continuous plot.

These issues seem to stem from the fact that this game was created from a Kickstarter campaign. Looking at the original campaign page, many of the story moments I took issue with were actually included as additions from the campaign hitting its stretch goals. With that in mind, it seems the reason that plot points are so isolated from each other and quickly resolved is because they were meant to be removed from the game should the stretch goals not be hit.

Dance the Night Away

Half-Genie Hero presents itself in a traditional platformer fashion. There are a series of stages that you unlock over the course of the story, each accessible from the main hub of Scuttle Town. While in the hub, you can speak to NPCs, purchase items, and upgrade your attacking abilities. Out in the field, you’ll be navigating platforms and pitfalls, fending off enemies with your deadly hair whip.

What sets this game apart from other platformers is its laser focus on finding secrets and hidden items within the stages. The game is relatively short if you’re just playing straight through the plot; there’s only six stages, and I finished my initial playthrough in about four hours. However, you’re highly encouraged (and often greatly rewarded) to revisit these areas and find the secrets within.

This is also where one of my main issues with the gameplay arises. Rather than leaving the item hunting to players who want to dive deeper into the game, Half-Genie Hero requires you to do so between stages. Once you finish up the plot playthrough of a stage, the next one won’t unlock until you finish a series of fetch quests for people in Scuttle Town, requiring you to revisit areas to hunt down items. The game provides plenty of hints for finding required items, but the fact that it forced me to do so became annoying as I just wanted to move on to the next stage.

Another unique aspect of the game is the ability to transform. Shantae can unlock different “dances” that let her transform into different animals, giving her new abilities. She can become a monkey to climb up walls, a crab to swim underwater, a spider to pull herself up to floating platforms, and so on. There is a hefty number of transformations available, each giving you new abilities to traverse the environment and find hidden items.

If you’re only playing straight through the plot, though, you’ll only get access to three or four of these abilities. A number of the transformation dances are hidden throughout the game, once again encouraging you to revisit and explore. Unlike the required fetch quests, though, finding most of these are totally optional. A couple of the fetch sequences do lead you to new dances, but it is entirely possible to finish the game using only the transformations the plot requires you to get. Picking up others, though, can definitely help out in the endgame.

When put up against the platformer genre as a whole, Half-Genie Hero definitely leans on the easier side of the spectrum. Pitfalls aren’t incredibly common, and falling into them just removes some health and resets you at your last checkpoint. Health restoration items are plentiful, and items that increase your health gauge are fairly easy to find. Enemies aren’t too aggressive, although they can be a bit damage-spongey if you neglect to upgrade your attack abilities.

Never Stop Moving

If there’s one thing about this title that I have absolutely no complaints about, it is the graphical presentation. Half-Genie Hero is an absolutely gorgeous game. Environments are impressively detailed, character animations are smooth and just as detailed, and everything is constantly moving and alive. Nearly every stage is distinct from one another, and even different portions of the same stage offer up new environments, keeping the presentation from ever getting stale.

Character designs are incredibly expressive as well, both in their sprite forms and in their character portraits during dialog. Half-Genie Hero forgoes the anime aesthetic of previous series entries, opting for a more western animation-influenced style here, which absolutely fits the bright and colorful presentation.

Both the PS4 and Vita versions run incredibly smoothly as well. I did notice some slight framerate drops on rare occasion, but they happened so few and far between that they didn’t even give me pause.

Amateur Hour

Befitting the bright and cartoony graphical presentation, most of this game’s soundtrack is just as bright and upbeat. There are a few aggressive tracks played in tone-appropriate moments, and the rest of the tracks act as excellent compliments to the stages and moments they’re played in.

The soundtrack does sound like it was completely synthesized, but the sound quality is still great. The tracks are a bit on the shorter side, though, so you will be forced to listen to them loop repeatedly if you’re spending time hunting down items in a stage.

The only track I can really say I hated is the single vocal track, “Dance Through the Danger.” Featuring a generic electropop beat, with vocals that sound like they’re from an amateur YouTube singer, it comes across as a smear on an otherwise solid soundtrack.

End of Year Surprise

Overall, Half-Genie Hero is an incredibly entertaining and addictive title with some downright stunning graphical presentation. It’s not too often that a game hooks me in hard enough that I look forward to getting home from work just so I can load it up again. It’s also not too often that I continue playing a review game after the article is written…but that’s just what I’m doing right now.

Despite being on the easy side, and some grievances with the forced fetch quests, this little title that popped up at the end of the year is making itself a strong contender for one of my favorite titles of 2016. It’s really been a strong year for platform titles in general, with Rabi-Ribi and Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight also in the running for one of my top games.

If you’re planning to look at the title just to play through the story, the price tag may hold you up a bit (running at $20 for the Steam version, outside of the currently active winter sale). However, this isn’t a game that’s just intended to be run straight through – the focus is on exploring and finding secrets, and aiming for 100% completion will definitely take some time.

If you’re a platforming fan, or just a gamer that’s looking for some straight-up fun, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is definitely a title that should be on your radar.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Review copy provided by XSeed Games for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.