The Shantae series is an odd one, isn't it? It's been around for quite some time, but never made a huge impact. The Metroidvania style gameplay and quirky writing are adored by fans, but despite being quietly very good, the games remain ignored by most. Funnily enough, you can play three of the four titles right now on PlayStation 4, an interesting case of waiting for a bus only for three to turn up at once. Well, within a year and a half of each other, but that's some quick work in the gaming world.
But while the earlier games retain their pixelated platforming charms, the Kickstarted Shantae: Half-Genie Hero may be the best of the bunch, and a great starting point for newcomers. Every major character from the previous games is reintroduced one way or another, while a more modern vector art style completely changes the look of Shantae and her home world of Sequin Land. This new aesthetic is by far the biggest differentiator; in every other aspect this is every inch a Shantae game, complete with large, explorable levels, catchy music, and a light-hearted story.
Shantae is awoken in the night by a mysterious voice, which she follows to her Uncle's home. In a hidden cavern, the voice reveals itself to be from the genie realm, and warns Shantae of a great danger that threatens to destroy both worlds. Your adventure starts in the peaceful Scuttle Town, where you're introduced to a few main characters before travelling to the first proper level. The loading times are minimal, and going from place to place is kept nicely within the context of the world, so you're nearly always kept engaged.
With just six levels to muck about in, there is a fair amount of repetition as you return to them later on. However, they're vast, varied, and packed with hidden and walled-off areas; you'll constantly be discovering new paths, the levels evolving as you do. Finishing a level and beating its boss unlocks one of the many animal forms that Shantae can adopt at any time. These range from a high-jumping, wall-climbing monkey to a lumbering, wall-smashing elephant, and much more besides. Not only do most of these alternate forms affect how you can navigate the levels, revealing secrets and collectibles in the process, but they can also bring new attacks, means of healing yourself, or even skipping sections altogether with the Warp Dance.
But Shantae herself is just as versatile as her Swiss army knife of transformations. Her signature hair whipping melee attack returns alongside some tried and tested magical powers, including fireballs, deflective shields, and lightning strikes. Fighting the bad guys with a combination of the hair whip and the magic abilities works fine, but it can be all too easy to rely solely on the basic attack. Once fully upgraded, it does a lot of damage pretty quickly, mooting some of the offensive magic. Still, there are plenty of options in combat to play around with, and the defensive powers especially are very useful against some of the bosses.
Although the game is not very challenging, the design is unabashedly old-school. The 2D platforming and endless quest for collectibles and MacGuffins, alongside the varied environments and memorable characters, makes this feel like a game straight from the 90s – in a good way. While there's nothing truly innovative on display here, there are some areas where Half-Genie Hero really shines. The level design is great, changing once their boss is defeated and always worth going back to. The writing is whimsical, silly, and playful, with an oddball sense of humour throwing jokes and breaking the fourth wall wherever it pleases.
All told, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is a very solid Metroidvania-esque platformer that caters to fans old and new. Everything that is loved about this series remains, while a brand new art style and a simple story put the barrier to entry very low. There's a lot of backtracking, and we found the combat to be a bit shallow, but the gameplay is largely very good, and you'll constantly be switching forms as you explore and hunt down everything the game has to offer. It's wonderfully light-hearted and doesn't take itself seriously, which is sadly quite rare these days. If you're after a tightly designed platformer with memorable characters and varied gameplay, Half-Genie Hero is here to grant that wish.