When we last checked in with Shantae, at the end of 2014’s Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, she had just completed an arduous quest to regain her genie magic so she’d have the raw power needed to steal the Ammo Baron’s rightful property and distribute it to people she believes to be more deserving. It is indeed a blessing that Half-Genie Hero is less overtly communist than that. This time around, Shantae is trying to help Uncle Mimic constuct a "dynamo," which device he believes will keep Scuttle Town safe from pirates and monsters forever. Of course, then the pirates and monsters get involved, and nothing goes quite to plan.
Shantae is back to her staple mechanics this time (after the magicless departure of Pirate’s Curse), meaning that her primary gimmick is magical dances that transform her into various animals. There are lots of dances this time around — fourteen in total, though it’s not possible to have them all at once — and a few of them have effects other than transforming Shantae; there’s a warp dance that helps her get around more quickly, a recovery dance that restores health at the cost of magic points, and an obliterate dance that does big damage to all onscreen monsters. That still leaves room for eleven transformations, including both series staples like the monkey and mermaid forms and interesting new transformations like the spider and dryad. Each of the forms serves a different purpose, and knowing which form to use when is the key to success.
The transformation system itself has been overhauled a bit, and is now very fluid and easy to use. It’s a snap to swap Shantae from one form to another, which is good, since much of the game involves transforming back and forth as you progress through levels. The forms themselves are all very limited, such that each one is really only suited to one or two tasks; this is quite different from, say, the forms in Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, which are designed for all-purpose use. Shantae will instead swap into forms for a short while to conquer a specific obstacle, and then return to her normal form. Shantae’s normal form is indeed the only one that can attack at all without the use of a special relic (unless we wish to count the elephant form’s charge, which is unwieldy and on a comparatively long cooldown, but does damage enemies struck with it), so Shantae will indeed spend lots of time whipping tinkerbats with her hair. While we’re on the subject of character forms and Wonder Boy, isn’t it peculiar that WayForward didn’t see a need to include an alternate male Shantae? I wonder why that could be.
Sequin Land is filled with the same characters we’ve come to know and love throughout the series; the Barons from Risky’s Revenge once again feature, as do Shantae’s friends Bolo, Sky, and Rottytops, and many recurring minor characters do what they do and recur. Exploration is similar to what it was in Pirate’s Curse, featuring a level select rather than a connected world, though the individual levels are more linear than in the previous game; each level is made up of a series of stages that must be progressed through in order with no backtracking. Shantae can revisit cleared worlds at any time (and will have to do so to retrieve treasure she couldn’t get to the first time), and can use the warp dance to skip from one stage to the next, but overall freedom of exploration is reduced. On the other hand, the stages themselves are relatively few and relatively large, meaning that there’s almost always a decent area to roam through, and the linear design does help to reduce confusion. There’s never really any question of where to go next, just of where the secrets might be hiding.
The level design itself is highly varied, which is a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how much variance from the core gameplay you like. Personally, it doesn’t seem to me that Half-Genie Hero ever strays too far from its roots; the variation stays in the "refreshing" rather than the "infuriating" zone. It’s especially helpful because you’ll be going through the levels many times; each one has quite a few hidden treasures in it, and Shantae will have to come back over and again to collect everything. Not everything must be collected to beat the game, mind, so it’s possible to get by with relatively little backtracking, but completionists don’t get that option.
The art style is quite different this time around, abandoning the series’ traditional pixel-art stylings for modern HD visuals. The overall effect is fine; I can’t really say it’s an improvement, but neither is it really a detriment. One thing that is a bit odd, though, is the complete animezation of the characters. The selection of such a bog-standard style does mean that the visuals stand out from the pack less than they might; it speaks volumes about the state of nerd culture in 2017 that I write complain-words about how we’ve seen all this before underneath a picture of a giant green naked fish-woman with a waist smaller than her neck and breasts the size of her head, but there you are.
The soundtrack is decent, though less remarkable than I’d hoped. The music, as is typical for the series, is sort of a blend of American guitar rock, J-pop, and traditional Arabian sounds, which (unlike the giant naked fish woman) is something unusual and striking. The music that plays in the hub area in particular I found to be excellent and quite catchy. I was given a bit of a start, though, when the game’s first level featured background music with vocals; I’ve been burned before, but it turns out this is the only lyrical track in the game, which is a blessing. Not that the track itself is precisely bad, but it’s certainly dumb, and vocals in the background music is distracting and weird anyhow.
WayForward’s dialogue is hit-or-miss, and, sadly, this time it’s mostly miss. I had high hopes following Pirate’s Curse, which had some exceptionally clever writing, but Half-Genie Hero is pretty bland. Most of the jokes aren’t really funny, and the few dramatic scenes are so short and so obvious as to be lacking in any impact whatsoever. Really the only kind word I can spare for the dialogue this time around is that I only detected one typo the entire way through the game, which is good, though somebody somewhere should have reworked the "item giving" routine such that it doesn’t print bizarre messages like "You gave Scrap!" WayForward is an American company staffed by native English speakers, and really shouldn’t put out games with 1992-esque Engrish in them. It’s also a bit annoying that picking up any item causes a large "You got X!" dialogue to open in the exact middle of the screen; the game does not pause while this dialogue is open, but it sure does obscure a decent chunk of prime real estate.
Unlike Pirate’s Curse, which was built from the ground up with the Wii U in mind, Half-Genie Hero doesn’t use the gamepad for a single thing (other than off-TV play, anyhow). No map, no quick inventory, no giant weirdo horn button like in Mario Kart 8 — nothing. It’s just a controller with a copy of the screen on. As a controller, though, it works just fine, and the controls are sharp and responsive (except when they intentionally aren’t; whoever decided that the game’s flight form should be modeled after Flappy Bird deserves a smack upside the head).
My primary complaint about Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is that it’s a remarkably easy game. Pirate’s Curse wasn’t setting any all-time records for difficulty, mind, but Half-Genie Hero doesn’t have a lick of challenge to it at all. At no point the entire way through the game was I anywhere close to death; I honestly can’t even tell you what happens if Shantae’s health runs out. Is it game over and back to the title screen? Does she land back in town? Does she start the level over? I have no idea. This problem is exacerbated the more exploration and collection the player does, too, as Shantae’s power increases well out of proportion to the game’s challenge. Once Shantae has the restoration dance (which is obtained quite early on), it becomes effectively impossible to die; on one magic meter, Shantae can use the dance four times (with the cost-reducer from the vendor in town, anyhow) and it restores a big chunk of health. Upgrade it and it restores all of her health. Shantae can also buy very cheap potions that restore her entire magic meter (and her health while they’re at it) and that stack to nine. That means that she can restore her health forty-nine times, which: I defy you to be so bad at any of the boss fights that you need more than fifty health bars to get through it. That is, of course, notwithstanding the game’s four other consumable healing items, and it is definitely notwithstanding the item that makes Shantae’s magic infinite, which completely breaks the game. Have I mentioned yet that there’s a spell that makes Shantae actually invincible as long as her magic doesn’t run out?
On the subject of instant death, there isn’t any. There are some bottomless pits, spikes, and lava, all of which look like they kill Shantae instantly, but they really just do minor damage and kick her back to the beginning of the room, so they’re not actually a threat either. It is worth noting, though, that the level floors are set extremely high, such that it’s important to avoid flying anywhere near the bottom of the screen, or Shantae will suddenly explode and get booted back to the door. Most 2D platformers, in my experience, set the level floors low enough that the player character has to leave the screen entirely to hit them, but not here.
In addition to being easy, Half-Genie Hero is also short. My first playthrough took just six hours to get 100% completion. There are, as is standard for the series, two different endings, and there are also three play modes: a standard mode, a hard mode, and a "new game+" mode of sorts, that starts Shantae from the beginning with her transformations already unlocked. There is DLC on the way; WayForward just announced the upcoming Pirate Queen’s Quest which casts the player in the role of series antagonist Risky Boots. This will extend the playability somewhat, though, of course, it will also extend the price tag.
In the end, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is a solid action-platformer marred only by poor balancing and one obnoxious quirk in the physics that makes exactly one jump way more fiddly than it should be. If you like action-platformers, you can’t really go wrong here, though the full twenty dollar price tag might be a hair steep for a six-hour game. I celebrate Shantae’s ferocious whipping hair by whipping her with four hairs of my own!