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Shantae: Half-Genie Hero (Switch) artwork

Shantae: Half-Genie Hero (Switch) review

"Phenomenal cosmic power, itty-bitty playing space"

Shantae seems to be a bad luck genie. For starters, her debut game was released on the Game Boy Color... a full year after the GB Advance was released. Despite critical acclaim, it was naturally ignored by the general public and seemed all but forgotten. But the developers loved the concept, and kept trying to bring Shantae back whenever possible. And the cute style, witty writing, and sharp platforming helped her gain a cult following. So with Kickstarter being used as a way to crowdfund games, it seemed a natural fit for this franchise with its strong yet small fanbase. But while the end result certainly has its moments, in the end it feels a bit shallow.

One thing that's impossible not to notice is just how darn cute and charming this game is. The pixelated sprites of Shantae in the past have been replaced by high resolution artwork, and the end result is stunning. Shantae herself comes alive, whether it be bopping to the music, crouching like a cat ready to pounce, whipping her hair around, and all with a smile on her face. This exuberant style likewise shows itself in the numerous inhabitants of Scuttle Town, all drawn with their own distinct cartoony style that nonetheless fits together into a cohesive aesthetic. That cartoony look really works for this game, and makes the characters and the enemy stand out amongst the vibrant backgrounds. Screens don't do the game justice: the fluidity of movement and animation, the shifting lighting, and all the cute little animation quirks work together for an amazing atmosphere. Shantae has always had a great artstyle, but this is the first game that properly showcases it in the game itself.

Oh, and that fluidity I mentioned? It extends to controlling Shantae herself. Every move of her feels very natural, and if you fail in this game you won't be blaming the controls or the programming. You whip your hair at enemies to kill them, an action that moves rapidly and responsively. Jumping and moving is quick, fluid, and precise. You also have access to many types of magic, and these too are sesponsive and fun to use. What makes this more impressive is that, frankly, Shantae's personal movements are only a part of what you can control. She can also transform into over a dozen different animals and creatures, each with their own unique movements. And still, it quickly becomes second nature to move these creatures around too. Sure, it may take a little getting used to the monkey's more floaty jump after hopping around as a normal half-genie, but it works fairly well in the end.

So you jump through the stages, whipping pirates and crabs and random crocodile factory workers as you try to make your way to each stage's boss. It's a relatively straightforward platformer, making your way through a seemingly linear level, albeit with plenty of twists and turns and ups and downs in it. I say seemingly though, because there are many, many secrets in these levels, and you definitely will not find them all on your first play through. That's because you simply can't reach them until you get your new abilities, namely the different transformations and their different abilities. You're allowed to return to any previous level whenever you want, and you'll be required to do it often. Secrets can be heart containers, newer animal forms or upgrades, or just keys to unlock an optional art gallery. Thankfully, you can see exactly how many items are still needed at the hub, so you'll know when you completed each level. Just don't expect that to happen until the endgame. Instead, you'll be whipping your hair, sliding down a lengthy conveyor belt while dodging enemies and canisters, or desperately trying to race to the top of a tower before a giant centipede eats you. And facing bosses. Big, big bosses, each cleverly designed and unique with their own patterns and methods to defeat. Try not to get spoiled on them, because some of them are incredibly. Some of them, unfortunately, are also quite easy, but at least they're all unique.

Make no mistake, this game is fun. There's some parts that are challenging, and some that are just joyous. If anything really does seem too hard for you, you can always go back and grab better magic or other goodies. Finding new locations the first time and revisiting old ones is a blast. Seeing how you can use your new transformations to make the old seem new is a blast. It's great... while it lasts.

That's unfortunately the problem: while it lasts. The game is very, very short. While each world has several subsections, there are only 6 worlds in total. The game tries to hide this by making you go through the levels multiple times, but you may start to dread returning to Main Street for the fourth time. And if you aren't interested in grabbing everything and just want to progress through the story, you'll find yourself at the end in seemingly no time. A full playthrough will only last you 8 hours or less; any replay will undoubtedly be much less. And again, it's not just the time, it's the lack of locations. Given how pleasantly varied all the different levels were, the game unfortunately just ends with me wanting more.

Don't get me wrong, I don't mind the backtracking and finding new secrets. I just mind when it ends up being more than the rest of the game. I want to see new stuff and fight new bosses, not endlessly repeating the same thing. In fairness, the levels get somewhat remixed with new enemieswhen you return to them, but still, it feels the same. And while I don't care about the plot in these sorts of games, it makes for an oddly disjointed experience. Half the game is you responding to various threats, while the other half is going on fetch quests for your crazy uncle. New transformations and powers were super cool at first, creating a sense of wonder, opportunity, and freedom. But the density of transformations relative to the size of the levels made the novelty wear off by the end of the game, as new transformations only really seemed to have one limited use, being required for one specific area to grab one specific secret. And instead of enjoying a natural flow of the game from beginning to end, you suddenly find yourself at the endgame way too soon, with the option of lengthy backtracking for fetchquests or simply beating the endboss and keeping the game short.

It's a shame, because this game deserved so much better. It's fun. it's charming. It's cleverly designed... mostly. It's not the length in hours played that's the problem, it's just that it's too darned small. I wonder if that's due to the Kickstarter mentality. The length of the game was apparently designed around how much money was raised, and it looks like it just wasn't enough to get a full meaty game. Perhaps that's why the game felt too "dense", with too many transformations and not enough uses for them. Meanwhile, extra content like the DLC which allows for playing as different characters may appeal to long-time fans of the series, but ultimately just serves to remix the same few levels again. What's the point? It's unfortunate that the way the crowdfunding works meant the game had to be designed around an unknown budget, thus leading to this half-game feeling. I mean, extras like voice acting I can understand, but entire levels?

I don't like ending on a downer here. If you don't mind the lack of levels and think the price is right, by all means grab this game. I did enjoy it, after all, even if it did leave me wanting more. Perhaps, with it's excellent art style and tight mechanics already completed, WayForward can create a new game reusing the same assets. A full game, with several brand new levels, would undoubtedly be brilliant. But if all we are left with is a half-game for the half-genie hero, well, I guess I will take what I can get.


mariner's avatar
Community review by mariner (November 28, 2017)

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bwv_639 posted December 12, 2017:

The original for the Game Boy Color is a masterpiece.
Then they began watering them. You water down gameplay, you spice up sales.

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