For some, Shantae has been a beloved sidescrolling action-platformer series for over a decade now. Since making her debut on the Game Boy Color in 2002, Shantae has managed to have some great adventures on a variety of platforms like the 3DS, PS4, and Steam. It’s a shame it took so long, but now with the fourth installment in the series she’s finally where she belongs: On our wonderful PlayStation Vita.
Starting with the writing of Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, the game’s certainly no slouch when it comes to comedy. Whether it be showing off its self-referential wit or unabashed low-brow humor, the dialogue is consistently hilarious across each end of the comedic spectrum. The game doesn’t take itself too seriously, and instead has so much fun with its characters and world that one can’t help but be compelled to play more. Friends and enemies of Shantae are incredibly memorable and unique, with really fun and sometimes evil personalities. One villain in particular is so charmingly egotistical that when they bring up the idea of having their own T-shirts, it makes me actually want to lay down the cash and buy one.
Clever writing isn’t the only thing Shantae has going for it. The animation and all around visual design of the game is superb. Character models are sharp and look even better in motion. The world is colorful and well realized with a 2.5D aesthetic. Multiple layers of background give the game a great visual feel as they move appropriately when Shantae’s positioning changes, sort of like those 3D holographic cards, except with the added benefit of not being a silly novelty that’s fun for about a minute. With many distinctive areas comes many distinctive backgrounds, and so it’s nice that Half-Genie Hero offers so many layers of fresh visuals for each respective level.
But back to the character models for a moment, every staple character in the series has certainly been done justice in 2.5D. Their images in text prompts offer a nice range of emotion, and even their idle animations are lively and unique. Rottytops, for example, has her hands on her hips as her knees take turns bending inward. In addition to that, her hair bounces according to her body movement, as does the swaying of her skull earrings and the bouncing of her chest. It’s all needlessly detailed, and especially sharp considering the size of their models on the Vita’s screen.
Much like the aspects I’ve already discussed, the gameplay of Shantae: Half-Genie Hero also manages to not fall short. First and foremost, it’s a well-paced action-platformer that’s simple to pick up and doesn’t treat its players like they’ve never played a video game before (it doesn’t tell you that X=jump). The game will, however, help you out during its more adventure-game-like aspects. The main town is littered with villagers that will give you useful hints on where to find what you’re looking for. You’ll probably need to talk to them as the game relies on these series of errands between discovering new areas. This can feel a little tedious at times, but ultimately they’re there to urge you to retread areas with new abilities you’ve unlocked along the way.
Basically, the game goes through two phases. The first phase starts when a new villain appears to wreak havoc on some sort of helpless city. Putting a stop to their misdeeds is your number one priority as a half-genie hero, so you must make it to the end of a newly introduced level and defeat them in a boss fight. After whipping enemies with your hair or blasting them away with magical upgrades, it’s back to helping your uncle build his dynamo, so you must gather parts by scavenging the areas you’ve unlocked and trading with townsfolk. It’s pretty busy work as (for example) you get salted caramel from a chef by clearing out her restaurant full of pirates, then trade that caramel to a kid for birdseed, after which you exchange that birdseed to a bird owner for a chunk of copper to bring back to your uncle for his dynamo. Time spent exploring new parts of dungeons and having fresh character interactions once you’ve completed their tasks mostly makes up for the mundanity of it all, and they don’t last very long unless you get confused along the way.
Half-Genie Hero also has a nice variety of clever puzzles that take advantage of Shantae’s ability to transform into different animals with specialized skills, like a mouse that can fit into miniscule cracks in the floor or an elephant that can smash through large rocks. There are eight core transformations, and they’re all utilized in their own special puzzles, as well as combined with others for even more diversity. One thing that’s similar about all the puzzles, however, is that none of them are too confounding. Most of the time all it takes is for you to stop and think about out what transformation fits the current situation best.
Overall, the game is quite easy (some might say too easy), at least on the first playthrough. It’s a little challenging at the beginning when Shantae only has two hearts of health, but there are plenty more to collect throughout the game, so much so that the final boss is pretty much a breeze if you have them all, maybe even if you just had half. You can stock up on plenty of consumables to replenish your health, and there’s even a transformation that allows you to create health restoring items out of nothing. Of course, that’s free to ignore if you like a challenge, but if you’re looking to 100% the game, an enormous health bar can’t be helped. And this doesn’t seem to get much harder in hero mode, which is unlocked after the first playthrough.
It’s a shame the game doesn’t offer difficulty settings, but there are plenty of inventive ways to challenge yourself outside of the hardcoded gameplay, like speedrunning (which is a trophy). Still, the game is a wonderful 6-hour-ish experience with decent replay value. The writing and visual design alone prop it up to be one of Vita’s finest looking titles, and I haven’t even mentioned the OST and voice-over work for the game, which are also delightful. That, added to the competent (albeit easy) action, puzzle, and platforming gameplay makes for a hair-whipping good time.