Platform: Nintendo Switch
Price: £15.99/$19.99 (eShop)
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is the fourth adventure in the distinguished Shantae series. In case you haven’t been following them, the games are platformers featuring the protagonist Shantae and her habitual hair-whipping attack. She’s half-genie, which allows her to transform into a variety of animals, and she can cast magic spells to banish her enemies. Whimsical and polished, the series is an exemplar of top indie gaming. So, I’m pleased to say that the developer WayForward largely maintains this.
Across 6 levels (and a hub world), Half-Genie Hero shows its quality through clever level design, varied environments, stunningly beautiful visuals and its beloved and jaunty characters. The problem is there’s not enough of it. Coming in at 6-8 hours on a standard playthrough, the game is a fleeting experience that leaves you wanting more. A few tricky areas aside, it also feels like an easier ride compared to the previous entries. The levels are more streamlined and it’s undoubtedly more linear in its approach too. That’s why I recommend Shantae veterans start it on the tougher “Hardcore” mode available from the off, as it adds a greater challenge that keeps you playing for longer.
The progression system in Half-Genie Hero is classic Metroidvania, as in you need to acquire abilities that allow you to explore previously closed off areas. It’s all about unlocking “Dances” that transform you into endearing animals. My personal favourite of these was the Mouse Dance that enables you to enter and solve small mazes to come out on the other side in a new location. Other notable mentions include the Spider Dance, allowing you to grapple to ceilings and the Harpy Dance which grants you the awesome power of flight. The most challenging aspect of the game is knowing how and where to unlock the Dances and their subsequent upgrades, called “Relics”, to progress things along. WayForward has accounted for this with hints that are available from the hub world, although you may still find yourself lost and wandering at certain points.
The presentation in Half-Genie Hero is absolutely top-notch. The hand-drawn visuals this time around replace the pixel art used in the older games, but the result is quite brilliant. At times it looks like a comic book coming alive to greet you. It also helps that the Switch’s 720p screen has a knack for making colours pop. To back these sumptuous visuals up is a soundtrack once again provided by the talented Jake Kaufman (Mighty Switch Force, Shovel Knight). Kaufman is a master with chiptune-style synthesizers and his work shines through here once again. Expect infectious melodies that lodge themselves in your head over and over again.
I found myself equally impressed by the use of the Switch’s HD Rumble feature by WayForward. In fact, it’s one of the best implementations of the technology thus far, enhancing the gameplay with haptic feedback that feels appropriate to in-game actions. For those that haven’t tried HD Rumble out yet: for example, when I jump into the water as Shantae, I experience sensations that make me feel like I’m moving around in it. It’s something I’d like to see more developers utilise because, although it’s not fundamental, it definitely increases your connection with the game when it’s executed properly.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is a fine video game, there’s no doubt about that. Lovingly crafted, it’s a pleasure to the senses while it lasts. The platforming is smart, the visuals and soundtrack are sublime, and most importantly, it’s fun. The game’s excellence is only dimmed by its short length, linearity and lack of challenge.