Shantae and the Pirate's Curse is a 2D side-scroller in the classic Metroidvania vein, but with a whimsical story and an anarchic sense of humour that helps separate it from the pack. Taking on the role of a half-genie named Shantae, you'll spend approximately ten hours exploring various islands, solving puzzles in dungeons, and acquiring new powers that allow you to access previously locked off areas. The game doesn't do much that's particularly new, and so while veterans of the genre should find themselves right at home, they shouldn't expect many surprises.
The game begins with Shantae – who was robbed of her magical powers at the end of the previous game in the series – waking up to cannon fire outside her house in Scuttle Town. She heads out to discover that her town is being invaded by the forces of the Ammo Baron – a cyclopic military leader behind the wheel of a huge tank. You must guide Shantae to the Baron by traversing some simple platforming sections, talking to various characters, and dealing with constantly re-spawning enemies by pressing the Square button to unleash a deadly flick of her magical hair.
The Ammo Baron is the first boss encounter of the game and he can be dealt with by simply standing in one location at the corner of the screen and timing your attacks over and over again. While first bosses on games commonly present little in the way of a challenge, this opening level, in many ways, serves as an indicator of what is to come. Much of the game will be spent running backwards and forwards throughout the various different lands, solving sometimes obtuse puzzles by talking to the locals, frequently dealing with re-spawning enemies that you've already killed, and exploiting the less than stellar boss AI to move on to the next area.
It's disappointing that the game features largely scripted enemies that re-spawn over and over again, but fortunately the islands that you'll visit are usually quite small meaning that repetition can be kept to a minimum as long as you know where you're going. This is sometimes easier said than done since the game can be a little vague when explaining exactly what you're required to do, but for the most part a little trial and error will get you through the fetch quests and let you get back to exploring the next dungeon you'll need to beat in order to progress.
Finishing a dungeon will grant Shantae a new power. These can be weapons – like a pistol which can be used to shoot enemies or switches for puzzle solving – or abilities – like the magic hat which allows Shantae to float and reach previously inaccessible areas. For anyone that's played a Metroidvania game before this should all be fairly straightforward; you'll beat a dungeon, gain a power, and then go back to previous areas to reach the hidden places that you couldn't access before in the hopes of finding more powers or useful loot.
Where Shantae and the Pirate's Curse really shines is in the art style and the writing. The game features a cute sprite-based aesthetic that will instantly feel familiar to anyone who has played something like Capcom's Aladdin on the SNES. During conversations, larger, higher quality images of the characters will be shown, and while it's perhaps disconcerting that a lot of these are scantily clad girls, the artwork is frequently impressive nonetheless.
The overall story isn't particularly engaging, but the interaction between the characters is frequently amusing, and the writing is imbued with an off-the-wall sense of humour that helps to keep things interesting. The dialogue is littered with throwaway jokes, cheeky innuendo, and some fourth wall breaking moments that give the game a charm that just about outweigh the various frustrations associated with the sometimes tedious gameplay.
Shantae and the Pirate's Curse has many of the trappings of a fantastic Metroidvania game, but has a few notable flaws holding it back from greatness. For people who can't get enough of the genre, the game will likely serve as an enjoyable and light-hearted diversion, but for gamers looking for a Metroid substitute on the PS4, there are better options like Axiom Verge or Guacamelee! already available on the system.