There’s a moment not long into Shantae: Half-Genie Hero that gave me chills. As usual, Half-Genie Hero opened with Shantae’s longtime arch-nemesis Risky Boots attacking Scuttle Town. I was running through Main Street, hair-whipping Tinkerbats left and right, enjoying the pumping soundtrack, when suddenly… vocals. This is the first Shantae game to have a vocal track, performed beautifully by Cristina Vee, and it took me completely by surprise. Thus, the aforementioned chills.
(The song in question, “Dance Through the Danger”, has actually been around since Half-Genie Hero’s 2013 Kickstarter campaign. Somehow I hadn’t heard it before now.)
This might seem like an insignificant thing to fixate on, but in the dozen or so hours I’ve spent playing the game, that it was the defining moment for me. Half-Genie Hero is a huge technical leap forward for the Shantae series, and the vocals are a noteworthy marker of that – symbolic, even. After a couple of pixel-art games – which were delightful throwbacks to the glory days of the SNES – Shantae: Half-Genie Hero brings the series into HD for the first time. That means high-definition sprites for all the characters and enemies, beautifully-rendered 3D environments (though the game still plays in 2D), snippets of voice acting, a richer, higher-fidelity soundtrack.
I’m not normally one to make a big deal of such things, but one of Shantae’s strengths has always been its world-building. Even with the GameBoy Color’s limitations, the first game managed to make Sequin Land feel vibrant and alive, and each new entry built on that. Half-Genie Hero takes that to a new level, allowing WayForward’s vision of a Middle East-inspired fantasy world to pop like never before. I’d even go as far as saying that, with its unmatched sense of style and the technical advances that allow that to shine, this is among the best-looking games around.
If world-building has always been one foundation of Shantae, then rock-solid platforming is the other. Again, despite hardware restrictions, the GameBoy original controls like a dream – I played it for the first time only a couple of years ago, and it barely shows its age. Half-Genie Hero continues this trend; Shantae moves with ease and grace, responding to your every input so well that you could almost forget about the controller in your hand. It’s a really difficult thing to get platformer physics just right, but WayForward’s decades of experience shows.
That said, I feel like the level design in Half-Genie Hero isn’t quite up to the series’ usual standard. Shantae’s always been great at balancing action, puzzle-solving, and exploration in a Zelda-esque fashion. Exploring complex labyrinths, solving platforming puzzles with a growing suite of abilities has long been a highlight of the series. In Half-Genie Hero, however, the focus is on linear action-platforming: discrete levels, with simple left-to-right progression and fairly standard platforming challenges. It works, but the element of exploration and adventure is missing, and said jumping puzzles are a bit too pedestrian to make up for that.
There are still plenty of secrets, but they’re rarely take you off the beaten path. Where past Shantae games hid secrets behind intricate puzzles that made use of Shantae’s growing set of tools, most of those in Half-Genie Hero are simply tucked away behind a “door” of sorts that needs a specific ability to get past, like a block that can only be moved when in elephant form. In past Shantae games, going in search of secrets after getting a new ability was a point of excitement; here, it feels like meandering busywork because that sense of exploration is lost.
A couple of levels do try to get a bit more creative – Mermaid Falls in particular stands out, with its network of ruins and mystical elevators. There are a few secrets tucked away behind more typical Shantae puzzles, and they’re a joy to discover and solve. Sadly, they’re the exception rather than the rule.
The most frustrating part about this is that Shantae has a wonderful assortment of tricks up her sleeve this time around, so Half-Genie Hero has all the pieces for a big jump forward in level design as well. Shantae’s got her genie powers back (after losing them and spending Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse experimenting with pirate tools), which means her trademark dance-based transformations make a return.
She has some 11 different forms this time around, covering old favourites like the Elephant and Harpy as well as new ones like Crab, Bat, and Mouse. As usual, each form has its own quirks – for example, Monkey can jump higher than normal and climb walls, Crab can go underwater and cut through seaweed. The variety is wonderful, and despite the number of different forms, none is ever made redundant. I just wish that the puzzles and general level design made better use of the full range of Shantae’s abilities.
Where Half-Genie Hero really does shine is with its boss fights. Shantae’s always had great bosses, but there are a few particularly imaginative ones this time around. Take the Giga Mermaid, the giant queen of the mermaid’s who’s been captured and shackled to a strange mechanical structure. Rather than fighting her directly, the aim is to free her from her chains by breaking six locks attached to the scaffolds, but in her rage, the Giga Mermaid attacks indiscriminately. Even the usual, expected boss fights – Risky Boots, Squid Baron, and the like – move in interesting directions.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the story, which I found stale and disjointed. Shantae’s never been a narrative-heavy series, but it’s always had interesting characters and off-beat plots that hide some surprising depth. Shantae is her same lovable self in Half-Genie Hero, and there are a lot of great individual character moments, but the overall plot is thin and kind of incoherent.
Risky Boots is up to her old tricks, Uncle Mimic is trying to restore some sort of artifact for some reason, and Shantae keeps getting visions from the genie realm, but the threads that tie all these ideas together are tenuous. The pacing is bizarre, with 90 percent of the game spent trekking around Sequin Land to find parts Mimic needs for his machine, and the entirety of the actual plot development squeezed into the final chapter.
It should be quite a heartfelt story, too. Shantae’s insecurity at being a half-genie (rather than a full-blooded genie) has been a theme throughout the series; Half-Genie Hero turns the focus to the strength she gains from her human side. This should be a significant milestone in the Shantae story, but it’s shoehorned into a tiny snippet of the game, almost like it was an afterthought.
The end result is a game that left me feeling conflicted. On the one hand, this is the most beautiful Shantae game, offering up a delightful vision of a particularly interesting fantasy world. It’s a welcome return to form in terms of Shantae’s genie abilities, and it throws so many great new ideas into the mix. At the same time, those ideas never really get a chance to shine thanks to level design that’s a shadow of what came before, and poor pacing squanders what should be a defining chapter in the story of everyone’s favourite Half-Genie Hero.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is developed by WayForward and published by XSEED. It’s available now for PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One, Wii U, and PC.
A PS4 press copy was supplied by XSEED for this review.