It’s time for this hair-oine to make her Xbox debut.
If you don’t know who or what Shantae is, I can’t really say I blame you, but I will have to acknowledge your lack of insight into a beloved franchise and character representing the 2D puzzle-platformer genre. Previous games in the series have always garnered critical acclaim, but the biggest issue the series faced was right from the start with lackluster sales of the original game, Shantae. Released on the Game Boy Color in June of 2002 (almost a year after its successor Game Boy Advance was released), the game sadly met with poor sales, despite very positive reviews. It unfortunately just got overlooked by everyone rushing to play the new kid on the block.
Remember when I said I had to acknowledge the fact that you didn’t know anything about this series? I have a confession to make – this is the first Shantae game I have ever played. As someone who has followed the video game industry very closely (as well as working in the video game retail field for over 10 years), I’ve always known about the little half-genie, and was well aware of how much people loved her and her games. I’d always meant to play them, however, I just never picked the games up myself. After playing Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, I’m ashamed of that fact.
Developer WayForward has always kept Shantae on their minds. They never gave her up, and finally in 2010, they released a new title in the series, Shantae: Risky’s Revenge for Nintendo’s DSi and eventually iOS, Steam, and PlayStation 4. Pirate’s Curse is the 3rd game in the series, and thanks to fan funding through Kickstarter, the 4th game, 1/2 Genie Hero will be coming to all major platforms sometime in the future. Fans don’t want her lost to time, either.
Now that we’ve got some back story and my sad confession out of the way, we can move on to the real meat of the piece here; the thing you came for: the review of the current game. In Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse you of course play as Shantae, a half-genie who lives with her Uncle in Scuttle Town in Sequin Land. After the events of Risky’s Revenge our hero is left magic-less and unsure of herself. She’s now human and no longer has the ability to protect her town like she once did, but she’s going to try, with help from her friends and family.
At the start of the adventure, Shantae wakes up to find that her town has been sold to the Ammo Baron, who is now the mayor, and he’s already begun the demolition. He has no love for our hero and has her ordered to be punished for being the town’s protector. While under house arrest, she is attacked and captured by her nemesis, the seafaring pirate Risky Boots, who’s angry that Shantae has stolen from her.
During this exchange, Risky and Shantae discover that it was actually Risky’s mentor who has stolen from her (from beyond the grave!!) and has taken her henchmen under his control via Dark Magic. With the Pirate Master’s plan figured out, Risky reluctantly teams up with Shantae in order to recover her stolen tools of the trade and stop him from resurrecting himself and taking over the world, as evil villains are wont to do.
The story as presented is your typical fare, and concludes as such, but I was endeared to it almost immediately. The interactions between each character really made me feel like this was a lived in world, and you could clearly see threads from previous games have carried through to this one. As someone who has no knowledge of what the histories and relationships each character has with one another, and definitely being able to see that there are ample references to the past, I never felt lost. WayForward has done a wonderful job of keeping the tone of the characters consistent while being accommodating to newcomers like me. It also doesn’t hurt that almost every character is likable. It’s mostly due to the way that just about every line of dialogue is written as some kind of joke. The back and forth is very quippy. You can see that a lot of care went in to getting the jokes and set pieces just right, and almost every one of them works. I found myself taking screenshot after screenshot with my Kinect due to the funny one liners batted back and forth. But it was also because of the beautiful artwork.
As you can see from the pictures above, the game itself is played in a high definition pixelated look, which is really charming. The animations bounce back and forth nicely and the beautiful coloration of not only the characters, but the various islands you traverse to is bright and lush. I never got tired of looking at it. For the story scenes, the speakers show up with word boxes and a still image of their reactions or motions within the scene. They look great and really pop on screen. Something else you may have noticed in those pictures is that the females are really sexy looking. Play the game for 5 minutes and it becomes readily apparent that the artwork is designed to please the adults in more than just color palate. And I’m not ashamed to admit I loved that. It’s not overtly sexual that a child playing would notice anything amiss, but enough of an adult tendency is there for the older people to enjoy a different aspect as well. The E10 rating seems appropriate here.
The action from moment to moment is smooth and enjoyable on pretty much all accounts. The game very much feels and plays like a humorous and simpler old-school Metroid or classic GBA/DS Castlevania style game, and I don’t use the term “simpler” in a derogatory way. What we get here is very solid. Mechanics gel well together and don’t trip over each other. Movement and platforming/jumping feels tight. The game progression is concise and rarely did I have no idea what I needed to do next. It all felt very polished. It felt good playing. Everything just worked.
With the mention of Metroid or Castlevania you get a certain idea in your head of what the game has in store for you, and your assumptions would be correct. There are collectibles. You get new powers in the form of Risky’s stolen items, and with those items, not only do you get the answer to a puzzle in the current level, but also the answer to previous levels’ hidden areas to find said collectibles. Along with the stolen goods, you collect gems used to buy things like healing items, new moves, upgrades to your hair (your main weapon of choice) and Risky’s stolen possessions. It’s a familiar loop, but one that, while as old as gaming, still feels fun to play through.
With the style of game so finely tuned, we also get classic boss battles to look forward to. Some say retro, I use classic. Distinct and neat looking end-level bosses, each with their own patterns to learn and overcome to earn victory. That’s not to say the normal enemies are dull looking and pushovers. On the contrary. The same level of care was put into their designs and patterns, too. With each level seeing a different theme (snowy, underworld, forest, desert, etc), there are plenty of variations to curse at for impeding your progress.
In those levels we sometimes get little game play diversions from the norm. One section may have you stealth your way through, another may become an “endless runner” of sorts. They were welcomed switch ups every now and then. If you’re wondering about the way the game saves, I may keep sounding like a broken record when I say if you’re familiar with the classics (Metroid and Castlevania, where you find a save room in strategic spots in the map), you already know how it works. I have no qualms with this style of saving, because I grew up with this or worse. I worry, though, that the newer generation of players who aren’t as familiar with this style of game will find the save system annoying or lacking. You won’t get a complaint from me. I think it adds to the strategy of it all.
The music in the game reminded me a little bit of classic Castlevania. Some tunes were pretty catchy, but some were forgettable. The effects sounded and worked well with what they represented, and I didn’t find anything out of place while rushing and jumping around the world. The one area I wish we got more of was in the voice acting. There’s almost none present. Sometimes Shantae will utter a single word or couple of words at the start of a scene, or mention someone’s name, but other than those short instances, you’re left to read the rest, and there’s a surprising amount of writing here. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no issues reading the story in my games, but with the gorgeous artwork presented to us during each story scene, and the tease of voice over we get every so often, the game just feels perfectly suited to voice acting throughout. Hopefully in the next game we get to hear the cute and vibrant characters speak fully.
If you’ve made it this far and actually read my thoughts rather than just skipping to the end, you already know that I love this game. It feels great to play, it’s super fun, and I didn’t want to put it down. Some of the Achievements look to be really challenging, so if you’re an Achievement hunter, keep that in mind. A fun challenge, but a challenge all the same. If you’re a fan of old-school gaming (right down to the final level that may have you questioning your sanity after failing so often), this has that with a new-school coat of paint. A vibrant, sometimes sexy, and really pretty coat of paint, with plenty of humor to keep you interested and invested until the end. The game is challenging enough to be difficult, but difficult enough to be challenging. Someone out there understands what I mean, and if you’re that person, or even if you’re not, this is definitely worth your time.
Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse will be available on the Xbox One starting 3/16/2016 for $19.99 (with a 25% discount for pre-orders and a first week sale). The game is already available on the 3DS, Wii U, and Steam, with a PS4 version on the horizon. A code was provided by WayForward for the purpose of this review.