I have been aware of the Shantae franchise for a long time. But with each of the three previous installments I’ve never been interested. I’m not exactly sure why, but the way the games were presented in the marketing just always seemed like something I wouldn’t enjoy. Honestly I only tried the latest installment because I was bored. Shantae: Half Genie Hero is the fourth and latest installment in the Shantae franchise. I’m happy to say that I greatly enjoyed it and it saddens me that I waited so long to play one of these games. If I had realized how the franchise actually played, I would have jumped in so much sooner.
Shantae: Half Genie Hero is a great looking game. It has an old school feel to it but a modern coat of paint. It’s marketed as being high-definition 2.5D. At first I thought this was a pretty lousy description because for the most part it seems like it’s just a 2D game with a few 3D objects such as barrels and boxes. There are also objects such as trees and clouds in both the foreground and background. This is all great and it looks very nice, but that doesn’t make it a 2.5D gameplay experience. It’s not until you reach the third or fourth boss that the gameplay dimensions appear to change. I say appear to change because that extra 0.5D is actually just an illusion, but it’s done so well that you can’t help but be impressed. The game employs the tactic of rotating the world around you rather than giving you the freedom to move outside of your basic 2D movement. The genius of the tactic is that it’s done so smoothly in an intentionally circular battle arena, making the game really appear to allow you more than just 2D movement. It was a wonderful and instantly memorable experience.
The menus are beautifully done. They’re a simple rounded block style with an easy to read font and pleasing color scheme. Everything is kept simple and informative. The HUD only shows hearts, magic, and current spell on the top left and gems (money) in the top right. Nothing else is necessary. The pause menu admittedly looks pretty busy at first, but it’s actually very straight forward. The dialog bubbles are smoothly rounded like the menus and the same nice font is used. When someone is talking, their picture is shown next to the bubble. The only visual options you have is brightness and that looks fine on default.
Overall, the game is very nice visually. It has a vibrant color pallet, full of details. The game is cute in style. It comes off like a well-made children’s cartoon. Textures are used with the perfect level of restraint making the game seem higher quality, but retaining that innocent visual tone. There are little things worth noticing like the fact that all characters, including the playable Shantae, are always moving a bit. Not walking around necessarily. Even when they’re standing still they have a bit of life to them. Swinging their arms or breathing heavily. The water in the background is constantly rolling in an almost realistic, but still animated way. Everything about the game is intentionally held back to preserve the game’s youthful vibrancy, while at the same time showing just how capable WayForward Technologies really is.
The gameplay is sold as a platformer, but that’s too simple of a description. The basic gameplay is platforming, but you can do so much more than that and the game itself is a lot more than just get from one end of a level to another. Your basic attack is a hair whip. But you can also cast a number of magic spells and transform into several different animals, each with its own unique abilities. The game is not a simple level crawler like classic Sonic the Hedgehog. You can and must backtrack. There is a world map with various stages/worlds that you must revisit multiple times. The game is filled with secret passage ways and treasures that you often can’t reach until you’ve moved forward and gained a new ability before coming back. There are many different NPCs, both temporary and throughout the course of the game that will give you various quests and tasks to complete. Many of these are not optional, but some of them are. A number of them are also connected to each other in one continuous scenario that you have to draw the connections between to move forward. The game has puzzles, fighting, treasure hunting, platforming, and a number of mini-games embedded into certain stages. To call it just a platformer is kind of like calling Mass Effect just a shooter. That may be a bit of a grandiose comparison, but my point is that the gameplay here is quite variable, quite undersold, and quite good.
There are a number of items and upgrades you can collect either through finding them or buying them from vendors. Various magic attacks, buffs, and special items can be obtained to make the journey easier. The nice touch is that all the upgrade items (relics) can be turned off whenever you want if you want to make the game more challenging for yourself. The combat isn’t challenging at face value, but the number of enemies, tight spots, and intentional limiting factors make it quite a bit harder than you might expect at times. Most of the time you rely on your hair attack because magic needs to be rationed and doesn’t do nearly as much damage as physical attacks once you buy the buffs. Your various transformations don’t take any magic, but most of them are used to get past certain environmental obstacles and aren’t actually that useful for combat. The platforming and stage traversal is just as challenging as the combat in many cases.
The game takes place from a hub world where you talk to most of the characters and get your quests. Those quests are fulfilled by going to other areas and fixing a problem which always ends with a boss fight after passing through about three areas the first time you visit a world. Each boss fight is a puzzle as well as a fight and some of them are quite tricky to execute even after you figure them out. The game feels very balanced overall though. After you’ve beaten the boss you will end up having to return to the stage again at some point and things do change. You will probably have new powers, giving you access to new areas. New enemies can occur. Sometimes NPCs have been added to the stage as part of a newer quest. When you reach the end of the stage a second time you don’t have to refight the boss. There are save points between every area in every stage but no checkpoints in areas. When you die you will always start back at the beginning of the area you were last in, but none of your progress for that area will be preserved. All in all, I found the gameplay to be very enjoyable. It gave me the satisfaction of playing a classic game like when I was kid playing Sega Genesis titles, but it doesn’t have that iconic level of blatant unbalanced impossibility that those games had.
The sound is also very well done in Half Genie Hero. The first thing you’ll notice is the music. It’s a real soundtrack. With actual vocals in the music. The sound quality is quite good both for music and effects. The music loops and has breaks when on the main menu, but in-game it’s a lot less noticeable because of the pacing. The effects are extremely detailed. Every little thing has a sound. Walking, climbing ropes, hair attacks, and every other little thing has a unique sound. There is also a small amount of voice acting. For the most part the dialog is done with text, but in key phrases Shantae, and only Shantae, will speak the dialog. The only sound option is volume and it’s total volume with no differentiation between music, dialog, and effects. Honestly though the options aren’t needed because WayForward handled the sound balancing perfectly.
The writing is about as good as it needs to be. It plays at being a serious plot, but is still the story of an adolescent girl who just happens to be responsible for defending a town from various cartoony villains. The entire plot is told through dialog and many of the characters are comedic by nature. The important portions of the plot matter to you, but most of the plot is just youthful angst and comedy relief so it’s not that great. But it is definitely appropriate for the visual personality of the game.
There is quite a bit of replay value in this game. 43 trophies including a platinum. Several collectible items both optional and mandatory. A decent number of upgrades and powers that affect the way you approach various aspects and obstacles. And then there are two extra modes with other playable characters once you finish the main game. It’s a pretty expansive experience. All that being said, I think the $20 price tag is a bit too high. The main story will take you 6 – 8 hours maximum and if you don’t care about collecting everything you could probably do it in less time. Even with the bonus modes I would be surprised if you needed to get in 20 hours of play to get the platinum if you wanted it. $15 would be a fair price. $10 would be a great price.
Shantae: Half Genie Hero is easily a win in my book. It is not the best game I’ve ever played, but it’s a very good one. There are definitely ways it could be improved but I honestly have no real complaints about it. It has excellent gameplay, great sound, pleasing graphics, a decent amount of replay value, and likeable characters even if the story isn’t that strong. The price is a bit high but the game is by no means a lamentable purchase. Wait for a sale and you will have no regrets about playing this one.
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