It should come as no surprise that Shantae was influenced by the likes of Aladdin and Castlevania, the visuals alone look like something from the best days of the Mega Drive/SNES era. Gorgeously animated 2D sprites populate an opening area seemingly based on Disney’s classic animated film, albeit with a hint of Gunstar Heroes’ fondness for insane explosions, and you’re soon passing areas you just know you’ll be revisiting later, once you’ve discovered the relevant power-up.
Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is the third in the series, but the first to arrive on Xbox One, after originally releasing on 3DS and WiiU in 2014. This unfortunately means that some of the characters and plot will mean less to newcomers than those familiar with Shantae’s previous adventures, but it won’t negatively impact your enjoyment of the game in any way. The Pirate Master is awakening after being sealed away in his grave, and now Shantae has to team up with her nemesis Risky Boots, in order to stop this great evil from returning. Simple stuff but, thanks to a combination of great writing and stunningly detailed animation, not to mention wonderful art direction in general, the story is great fun for newcomers and fans alike.
Shantae’s cast is chock full of female characters, and though their various states of undress (not to mention a fondness for excessive cleavage) may be deemed inappropriate to some, developer WayForward doesn’t shy away from making jokes at its own expense from time to time. Each character has their own personality and it really shines through during every encounter, and Shantae herself is understandably the best of them all. The anime-inspired designs give them all distinct looks, especially during dialogue scenes, and the animation of each sprite is superb. It’s clear that this franchise is near and dear to the hearts of the development team.
The presentation quality is further aided by the soundtrack, full of catchy tunes that riff on Arabian themes or even throw in another hint of Castlevania. Fun, energetic beats keep pace with the action on screen, always in keeping with the distinctively varied environments. The level design is almost entirely fantastic too, with labyrinthine dungeons beneath the ground and even a stealth section that, while sometimes frustrating, brings another layer to the already deep gameplay.
Controlling Shantae is as simple as any Metroidvania title should be. The left stick or directional pad moves her around, A jumps, X attacks, B shoots (once you’ve discovered the means to do so) and Y activates the lamp, in order to gather the Dark Magic dropped by defeated Cacklebats. There are 20 of these creatures hidden throughout the various worlds, and they are required if you wish to see the full ending of the game – luckily it isn’t as difficult as you may expect, you may even find most of them during your travels through the story anyway. The level select also lets you see how many you have left to collect on each island, along with the collectible Heart Squids that increase your life. For every four adorable little Heart Squids you take to the Squidsmith in Scuttle Town, she will imbue you with an extra heart, increasing your maximum life – the sequence is both adorably funny and horrifying to witness, adding to the game’s unique identity.
If you’ve played any of the recent 2D Castlevania games, Super Metroid or any of the GameBoy Advance Metroid games, or even the likes of Shadow Complex, you will quite easily be able to grasp how Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse plays. You move from place to place, gathering new abilities that allow you to reach areas in earlier levels that were previously inaccessible, sometimes to progress the story, sometimes to discover secrets like the Cacklebats. The great thing is, anyone can pick up and play the game, due to the wonderfully smooth difficulty curve. The first couple of islands are relatively easy, but each island will teach you something about how to handle various problems you will encounter in future islands as the difficulty increases. Each island and new ability will serve to teach you how to handle the bosses too, in the Den of Evil at the end of every island. These bosses are as varied as the rest of the game, offering enough challenge to keep you on the edge of your seat, but never quite enough to test your skills to the limit, which may disappoint some of the more ‘hardcore’ gamers wanting a serious challenge.
That’s not to say you can’t challenge yourself in Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse. WayForward offers players the chance to build their own challenge, with one particular achievement being to find every single Heart Squid in the game but then finish the game without ever taking them to the Squidsmith. This is not a challenge to take lightly, as you only start with two hearts and some bosses will require lightning reflexes to avoid taking damage. Upon completing the game, the unlocked Pirate Mode also gives speedrunners the chance to power through the game, giving players access to all items from the start, so there’s obviously fun and challenge to be had for those looking for it.
Unfortunately, challenge is something that will inevitably find everyone in the final area of the game. Up until the final dungeon, the game keeps things moving smoothly and the level design is incredible, but then WayForward created a section so entirely against the style and flow of the game, that it sucks all the joy and fun from the experience. Long sections filled with instant death and requiring split-second reflexes, almost as if it was taken from another game entirely and plonked into the end of Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse for the sake of toughness. After many, many attempts I powered through eventually, but it soured my view of the game, sadly.
If you can forgive the madness that drove WayForward to create that final section, and see the incredible quality of the game as a whole, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a game deserving of your time. Clocking in at around six or seven hours, including the collection of all Cacklebats, there’s plenty of game on offer and that’s just for the first playthrough. Completionists will derive many more hours of fun from collecting all the secrets and obtaining all achievements, doubling the game’s lifespan. It’s a memorable and colourful adventure, either way, and is sure to bring a smile to your face.
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