Thursday, December 22, 2016
Shantae: Half Genie Hero Review
Oh hey, it finally released after three years! Christmas wishes do come true!
FULL DISCLOSURE: Shantae: Half Genie Hero was a Kickstarter game that I contributed funds towards. Just making sure everyone's clear on that.
Mighty No. 9 was a piece of trash.
I felt like enough time has passed now where we can just look at the game and determine that after years of publicity, work, stretch goals, and media mishaps, Mighty No. 9 is just a bad game. It very likely could have been great, but that's just not the way the world works unfortunately. And it's a shame too, because another major 2D platformer that was also funded by Kickstarter was released, and it's a damn good one. Shantae: Half Genie Hero is the game that Mighty No. 9 wishes it could be.
I've been a huge fan of the Shantae series since I first played Risky's Revenge, and I would easily rank it as one of my favorite platformers of all time for how polished it was and how it never felt the need to overstay its welcome. It could have been beaten in a couple of hours, then speed run into oblivion. Shantae and the Pirate's Curse, the 2014 sequel, was fine, but it made the weird decision to make the game have a level select, but still make each world incredibly complex and brimming with secrets. I know that I'm in the minority on this, but Pirate's Curse just felt too dense for my liking. You had to collect too many things in small spaces that you needed too many powerups to get to. There always needs to be a fine balance between gameplay and level design, and Pirate's Curse was a bit off for me personally.
Shantae: Half Genie Hero, is a prequel/remake/reboot/sequel/midquel to the series that... well the story is really irrelevant. The game has a hub world, you go to various levels that have their own individual stories, then go back to the hub world to accomplish a few tasks before journeying to the next level. Honestly, the story here just boils down to "Risky Boots is planning on using her pirate to take over Sequin Land", and there's nothing wrong with that because the game keeps a strong focus on the shorter levels in the game and how enjoyable they are. One level has you tackling a canned mermaid factory that's making girls into fake mermaids, while another level has you entering a magic carpet race to find someone that's going to crash the race. Each level is fun, so the main story becomes irrelevant.
It is important for me to mention that as I backer, I didn't really involve myself in the production aspect of the game. I saw all of the footage as it was coming out, voted on a design or two, and that was about it. I just wanted to buy the game early and get it for a cheap price with several other goodies. Yeah, I loved seeing all of the updates as they were coming along, but I was more interested in figuring out when I was actually going to play the damned game.
And almost as soon as I sat down to play the game, I was done. Six hours later, spread over the course of two days, I had already 100% completed Shantae: Half Genie Hero. So I had a moral conundrum here. I loved the time I spent with the game, but the majority of my time was spent replaying levels hunting for a few specific items and attempting to get enough money to buy every item.
See, I'm familiar with Shantae games being collect-a-thons, but Half Genie Hero does things a bit differently than other games in the series. Instead of the levels being large and prone to being Metroidvania like, where the levels are massive and you need to explore every nook and cranny for the items, Half Genie Hero is very linear. You'll almost always be going from left to right with little variation, and the secrets are always just a bit off the beaten path. In the desert level, you'll have to climb a massive, linear tower, but you'll pass by various nooks and crannies that you can come back to when you have certain powerups in order to get more items. You'll never have to scour a level from front to back to find an item, because they'll usually be in plain sight or have an obvious entryway to find them. It's even easier when at the beginning of each level, you'll see a counter explaining how many items are left in the level so you know where you need to go and where you don't have to go.
I love that everything has been streamlined in this game so you can get to the good parts easier. You can warp inside of levels to earlier or later parts depending on the situation, the NPC's will always offer fun little hints to help you out, and while all of the stages are fairly straightforward, there are still some unique challenges that will require the mastery of your abilities and skills.
Speaking of, one of my favorite mechanics from Risky's Revenge and the original Shantae finally returned here; transformation dances. With the press of a button, Shantae can turn into up to 12 different creatures at a time. She can become a monkey, and elephant, a mermaid, or even a bat, and each animal has their own unique functions, physics, and mechanics to learn, making some stages even more dynamic because of it. Sometimes you may want to turn into a monkey to get higher jumps, or to change into a bat just to fly over and obstacle that you really don't care about in the slightest.
Personally, I think the platforming here is the tightest that the Shantae series has ever been. Everything just feels rock solid when you're controlling Shantae, and there's never any section that takes direct control away from the player. There are no ice stages to screw up movement, and most stages are just complex platforms that require precision and accuracy. This is the kind of platformer that requires skill to beat.
Also, hot damn there are some great bosses in this game. There are about 8 bosses in total, but most of them are a damn good time and a pleasure to look at. The animation in general is fantastic, and usually the bosses are the way that Wayforward, the developer, shows it off. Some bosses are gigantic sprites, some are 2D bosses fighting in a 3D space, some have a massive amount of characters or projectiles on screen at once, and every boss is 100% a challenge. I just wish that there was a boss rush mode or a way to fight the bosses again. When you return to a stage, you won't be able to fight a boss again, and while that may seem helpful, it makes the stages pretty empty after you beat it for the first time. You've seen all the stage has to offer and you're just doing clean up duty.
It's not tat I have a problem with going back to stages to pick up new things, but you're going back to old stages constantly to check for new powerups. You usually get a new transformation every level, or sometimes two depending on how good you are at finding secrets, but because each powerup has a new way to move around or change platforming, this usually means you'll go back into a stage after getting each new transformation, scouring around to collect any item you can, then leave. Now this wouldn't be a big deal if most of the items you had to collect were optional, but by the end of the game, nearly every item is needed in order to beat the game. The only three items you won't need are heart tanks, keys for the art gallery, and items that change the money that you pick up into health or magic boosts.
I don't know if I'm coming across as being negative here, but I'm not, honestly. In fact, I love this game. I think this is one of the best games of the year and you'll definitely be seeing it in a few weeks on my best of 2016 list, but that's beside the point. I'm critiquing Half Genie Hero so harshly because this is a game that could very well be perfect, but a few niggling design choices prevent it from being it. It's so close to being one of the best games I've ever played, and yet the backtracking just killed me.
Everything else about the game is fantastic though. Shantae games are known for their humor, and Half Genie Hero certainly does pack a few jokes into it. I wasn't roaring with laughter, but I usually just has a good chuckle whenever the characters were talking to one another. Some characters are inherently funnier than others, but there are still some great moments that rank as being some of the funniest in the series.
Jake Kaufman delivers another fantastic score here with some genuinely ear pleasing music for the seven levels present. Each screen has a different song to accompany it, and the boss theme is still immensely enjoyable. I was able to score a free download of the soundtrack, and I listen to a healthy amount of the soundtrack in my free time.
For me, Shantae: Half Genie Hero is a game that I've just accepted I enjoyed after playing through it. Some games require me to sit and let the experience sink in, while others I need to play through the game a couple more time in order to fully appreciate it, but when I saw the credits for the first time, I just thought to myself that I was completely satisfied with what I got. It lived up to my expectations and I had a blast with it.
I encourage you all to take this review with a grain of salt however. I'm not a fan of reviewing things that I've had a direct contribution towards creating, because it hampers my judgment. "Of course I'm going to like the game I funded three years ago! Why wouldn't I?" is the thought that lingers in my head as I played it. So I like Half Genie Hero because it's a great game, or because I'm telling myself it's a great game.
Personally, I think it's a great game overall. I enjoyed most of my time spent with Half Genie Hero, even if a lot of it was spent going through the same levels again and again. Thankfully, I never got frustrated with the game. I never rolled my eyes when I had to go back to the same level again and again because the level design was always fair. There were no instant death traps that made me restart from the beginning of a level, and by the end of the game I had more health than I knew what to do with, so falling into pits or hitting spikes were just minor setbacks. If levels were designed to kill me, then I would have an issue, but that never happened. I was always challenged fairly, and I overcame the challenges through skills and smart platforming.
Shantae: Half Genie Hero is a game that I encourage everyone to go and pick up. It's only $30 at retail, is on PS4, XBONE, Vita, and Wii U, and comes with a fantastic soundtrack with every purchase. Hell, there's still time to pick a copy up for that special someone for the holidays. Go out and do it, and they'll thank you later for it.
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