Ever since I can remember myself, I’ve always had a thing for gloomy, dark environments and moody characters, dark metaphors about our society etc etc. I’m the kind of guy who will start booing if the pony doesn’t symbolise drug addiction or white meat selling or something along those lines. So it is indeed quite rare for me to find a game that’s all cheery and colorful in an un-ironic way that I almost love. Even rarer if said game was intended for kids. Well done Shantae: Half-Genie Hero.
Shantae, the town’s local genie (a half-breed apparently) wakes up in the night after a nightmare warns her of the coming destruction of the genie realm. From the very next day she starts looking for clues, as she helps her uncle create a machine that will put something like a force-field around their town, so Shantae herself doesn’t have to protect it. After that a wild-goose chase begins, with Shantae trying to find components for the machine while also trying to stop any potential evil overlord from completing his plans, which might threaten the genie realm (spoiler: all of them end up being a bust, they were just gathering evil minions for sh!ts and giggles mostly).
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is a story that takes place in a universe established in the previous games, but isn’t particularly connected with any of them. The game does expect you to already know its characters, but since they’re not particularly complex ones (most of them have 1 or 2 quirks at most and that’s it) it doesn’t take long for the newcomer to start remembering them. From what I understood, since I haven’t played the previous games and only partly watched a playthrough of Pirate’s Curse, Half-Genie Hero is somewhat of a class reuinion for old characters, with all npces bosses minus the second one having appeared before in the series.
The general tone of the game is happy and whimsical, even when a tragic thing happens, so don’t expect particular investment as far as story goes. This is not helped by the fact that NOONE STOPS DANCING. Half-Genie Hero has a quirk of its own, where standing npces are disco-dancing, especially the girls, who are 90% of the game. This goes on even in cutscenes and “emotional” moments, so you might as well throw the immersion out of the window. The plot generally left little impression, and at times the characters’ personalities starting becoming obnoxious (like your cousin, the antagonist-third-boss, Risky Boots and others).
Then again, Half-Genie Hero never intended for the story to be anything more than an excuse for the various stages and here it is that it gloriously delivers. The desert town from which the game begins basically acts like the player base, with all the shops, npces and the art gallery located there. Oh yes, shantae does have some rpg elements to it, like item management, upgrades etc, though the absence of dialogue choices was noted, especially when there is a completely needless option not to give npces items that are completely useless otherwise.
Speaking of items, Shantae does feel like an old adventure game. You gather an extraordinary amount of random crap which you trade for more random crap which you trade for the one hamster wheel you needed to complete your uncle’s quest. I wouldn’t mind so much, except that a ridiculous amount of them are mandatory. I’d prefer it if they left that kind of stuff for the side quests, which are actually way less than you initially think. At some point loads of quests appear from the town’s npces and you think “Oh, yeah, now those are optional.” Nope. All of them give you random crap that you will later need for the main story for incredibly contrived reasons.
The “player hub” is a small part of the game though, most of the action will take place in the 5 stages of the game (and the final one, which by default, you only visit once since the game ends after that), each of which has a unique appearance, setting, mood, etc etc. There’s the burning town, the desert tower, the mermaid factory, the sky race, the halloween castle and finally the volcano/hell stage. From those, I really got to enjoy the first three most, again and again and again since Shantae can’t get enough of its backtracking.
The stages usually consist of three or four sub-sections, with the environment drastically changing in each. You control your little Half-Genie Hero, going from left to right, platformer style, fighting enemies you find on your way and solving the occasional puzzle with the use of your other forms (more on that later). Now, going from left to right might be the main objective, but there are a gazillion things hidden all around the stages (in the first ones at least) up and down, in areas you can reach only by using Shantae’s various forms. That means that, despite completing a stage once, you’ll have to, for example, revisit it after acquiring the crab form, in order to explore the underwater areas and get the Sunken Skull collectibles.
Now, being the gaming genious that I am, when the game asked me for the difficulty setting, I fearlessly selected “harcore mode” and immediately got my ass kicked. I mean, the enemies doing 4 times the damage and receiving half of it was one thing, but the difficulty of the game also affects the timers of the platforms. I also have a strong suspicion it affected the probability of Shantae latching herself on surfaces, as the first boss was literally impossible to defeat, with my Half-Genie Hero jumping up and down like a maniac right under the rope for nearly 15 seconds and not managing to grab on to it.
Having suffered mercilessly at hardcore mode (I honestly couldn’t get past the first boss and to even arrive at that point there had arrived to many rage-enducing states.) I finally gave up and decided to go for normal difficulty… And suddenly the game was a breeze. I’m not overreacting here, what took me 1 hour in hardcore mode literally took me 5 minutes in normal, and that’s with the opening scenes. The main combat of the game is frustratingly easy and especially the final boss was a complete disappointment, having found a combination where it was literally impossible for me to take damage indefinitely (maximum upgrade the protection spell and find all the gallery key collectibles to get the infinite mana tiara, you literally can’t die anymore).
Combat is only half of Half-Genie Hero though (and near the end even less than half), with platforming being your main torture for the evening. I won’t lie, some of the “puzzles” were really fun. Shantae unlocks various belly dances as the story progresses, turning her into animals with various abilities. The spider can throw her webs to the ceiling and walk on it, the elephant can destroy large rocks to unlock new areas, the mouse can go to a maze mini-game to reach otherwise unreachable locations, etc. The monkey dance, aka the first you get, is by far the most useful one, with everything else being a gimmick. The final levels will force on you the harpy mode and believe me, you will want to punch the developers in the face. The supposed harpy looks, sounds and even worse MOVES like a chicken. And chickens aren’t meant to fly!
Lets be honest though, the game is fun. As I said, some of the puzzles are really fun, requiring you to go to a succession of forms to reach your objectives, from bat to spider and from that to mermaid, Shantae is certainly creative with its level design… Uuuuntil the final three (out of six) stages that is). At that point the player has already unlocked nearly all forms and abilities he will need, with the Sky Race and the Haunted Castle being surprisingly… Empty. Whereas Mermaid Falls had nearly 11 collectibles in it, both the sky race and the haunted house have two, as if the developers were saying “Ok, the player is probably sick of backtracking at this point, might as well let them get everything in one go.”. And right they were, by the time I had finished the game I’m sure I had visited the f@cking Mermaid Falls 12 times already to get the collectibles I could find with every new form I unlocked.
At times the platforming will really, really get on your nerves. (Funny, I started writing this review thinking fondly of Shantae, but the more I go on the more I want to scorn it.) Since enemies barely remove 1/4th of a heart with each hit (and after you get the bikini armor even less than that), the devs had to find a way to actually kill the player. And so we arrive to the instakill platforms. The wall might be covered in spikes, or the floor might be lava, OR BOTH, but the result is the same: certain surfaces will instantly kill Shantae, sending her back to the start of the stage. And before you start smiling knowingly about the good old snes days CLEARLY YOU HAVEN’T CONTROLLED A CHICKEN-HARPY BEFORE.
Do you guys remember Jack Jazz Rabbit 2? Yeah, welcome back. I honestly can’t describe it better. Everything about Shante: Half-Genie Hero’s technical aspects, from the enemy design to the music to the platforming and gameplay style scream of Jack Jazz Rabbit 2. I don’t think they even deliberately copied it, they just have a few designers from that game here. The graphics (especially for the enemies) have that old… “Meanness” to them, that makes them especially appealing, the fully-body shots of the characters for the dialogues are really well designed and the environments and the backgrounds are rich in detail and really pleasing to the eye.
(disclaimer: video by “Press Select Shan”)
The music follows suit, with… ~I think “funky” is the word?~ tracks that feel very video game-y, but in a good way. The theme song, “Dance through the Danger” plays on the first stage of the game, being really fun and welcome in the normal difficulty and causing clenched teeth in hardcore. If I have one problem with Shantae’s technical aspects, that’d be the speed with which the dance menu changes the options, which is both too fast and too slow at the same time. That’s just a minor annoyance though, with the overall result of Shantae being amazing.
So here’s the thing with Half-Genie Hero. Certain gameplay choices are irritating as hell, like the insta-death walls (survival tip: The lasers are actually deflected by the bubble) or that section with the worm crawling up the tower, but the technical aspects like the graphics, music etc. are so good Shantae leaves a very good impression. I mean, granted, the game is too easy on normal and too hard on hardcore, making me wish for a middle-ground, but that doesn’t stop the player from really enjoying the first three stages of the game, which take 80% of your play-time. As for the final stage,
it can go fu we wish more attention was given, but regardless, it is, thankfully, a very small part of an otherwise great experience.
Gamehorizon approves of the purchase.
- Super-Stylish graphics.
- Grade A music.
- Really fun gameplay in some areas.
- Gotta love the background designs.
- Very... Video-Game-y feeling.
- Normal mode is too easy.
- Hardcore mode is Dark Souls-y without the game cheating you.
- Some very specific places in stages cause homocidal tendancies.
- The harpy form controls.