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Monday, December 19, 2016

Review: Shantae: Half-Genie Hero

Filler entry, text to follow.
Kickstarter is a tricky mistress. She will tease you with promises of a great night on the town, but when you fork over the cash, things might turn out very differently than what you had expected. Of course, if you simply trust the developer to make a solid product and refuse to involve yourself in the "process," you are bringing that sort of result upon yourself, right?

But what if you really do trust a developer and want them to succeed? Where does that put you when things do not exactly meet your expectations? Well, that is a different side of Kickstarter, the one where established developers with a vision, or perhaps a familiar intellectual property, take to the site in hopes that their fanbase is still out there, waiting for another great experience. That can sometimes be even more disappointing than an unknown developer's product not resonating with you.

That brings us to Shantae: Half-Genie Hero.

PROS:

-Hey, this game is pretty! Utilizing Wayforward's Duck Tales Remastered engine, Shantae pops with hand-drawn sprites, quirky character animations, and pretty 3D backgrounds. The resulting aesthetic is immensely pleasing.

-Do you like multifaceted level design full of secrets to uncover? Half-Genie Hero uses this sort of expanding design to continuously surprise and case players to repeatedly return to areas.

CONS:

-Many of Shantae's traditional mechanics- a heart health system, side quests, damage-sponge enemies and bosses- feel a bit unsuited for an action-platformer.

-While many powerups are given specific areas to "test" their abilities, others do not get the same sort of treatment, which can lead to some confusion regarding their usage. This is only wounded further by their highly-situational implementation, with some abilities having one-time use.

-Very little about Half-Genie Hero feels all that new, with many familiar locales, characters, and powerups on display. The elements that are new feel like a breath of fresh air, everything else is a bit by-the-numbers.

THOUGHTS:

For a series so deeply rooted in action-adventure design, it is a bit surprising to see Shantae transition into action-platforming. While the implementation of her genie powers is well-executed in the level design, the overall product feels more like a tease of a much larger, more expansive product than what is delivered. If there is one thing I can say about the game, it is that it feels economic. Very rarely does it feel like space is underused, with many areas of the levels opening up more and more as Shantae gains new transformations. I was very pleased to see how much mileage Wayforward was able to squeeze out of what is essentially five levels.

However, while returning to old locales in an adventure game can feel rewarding and empowering, Half-Genie Hero's reliance on set pieces to tell narratives leaves the areas feeling a bit barren after a second run. This also clashes with the action-platforming design a bit- I was frustrated by my inability to nab a treasure chest containing a powerup during my initial run of a chase sequence, only to find that there was no way to do so during the first playthrough of the stage. On the other hand, one of the levels loses a fair bit of its charm once the background activity no longer cycles through. Side quests feel like organic ways to get the player to return to certain stages, but the indicators in the hub world are a bit superfluous at times, and some quests only reveal themselves to service the continuing plot. Eventually, the narrative boils down to four separate fetch quests, and while some of them feature specific challenges, others are straightforward and simplistic.

Shantae has always been known for her dances, and they are on full display here. However, there are a number of them that are in no way useful, with some becoming obsolete with the addition of new transformations later. While this allows the developers to craft platforming-specific sequences within levels, I would have liked to see each of the eight(!) useful transformations expanded upon in a bit more depth. A few of them feature additional tiered abilities that are used sparingly in execution, which is disappointing. And why do none of the boss battles take advantage of these transformations? This was a fascinating part of Pirate's Curse and certainly possible with the developers' knowledge of what transformations are available to the player at certain times.

Despite all of this, Shantae's charm shines through. The soundtrack hits all of Jake Kaufman's usual notes, though there are few standout tracks. The character banter is as cute and self-aware as ever, and even the newer characters are fascinating to behold. It is surprising to see the villain make such a drastic turn in character after the events of Pirate's Curse, but much like Star Fox Zero, Half-Genie Hero feels like an anthology Shantae story, filling in a few details about the titular hero(ine, this has been driving me nuts), but nothing all that substantial. It's fluffy, but a good kind of fluff.

With the Risky Boots campaign still unfinished, it's hard to say Half-Genie Hero is a complete product. I wonder if the game will take on more of a Sonic the Hedgehog sort of feel, myself- where Risky will unlock new areas with her unique abilities. As it stands, however, Half-Genie Hero feels worth my personal pledge price: 15 dollars. It does little to break the mold of other action-platformers than already exist, fitting the pieces of the beloved series into the formula instead for some interesting- and passable- results. But as a celebration of the character and a work of passion between fans and developers, it manages to do what it can with the series' trademark charms.

Final Verdict: An independent, downloadable title through and through, Half-Genie Hero is a mixture of classic Shantae elements with an action-platformer format that works... most of the time. While the art is gorgeous and the transformations are unique, the experience feels more like an experimentation than a finely-tuned product. Then again, that is what Kickstarter is for, isn't it...?

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