While WayForward has been working away on the crowd-funded Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, which will be released on every platform under the sun, it hasn't forgotten its Nintendo roots. Shantae and the Pirate's Curse, the final game of the "original" series, wraps up the storyline started in the original Game Boy Color title and shows a level of sophistication rarely exhibited by independent studios. Unlike the relatively short but sweet Shantae: Risky's Revenge, Pirate's Curse is a full, epic platforming adventure bursting with challenge and polish; arriving on the Wii U eShop after launching on the 3DS earlier in the year, Shantae and the Pirate's Curse is simply a must-have for gamers.
Shantae and the Pirate's Curse's story is a continuation and features familiar characters and a few previously visited locations, but newcomers will still enjoy and appreciate the wacky cast and charming world WayForward has built. Shantae, once the half-genie guardian of the seaside Sequin Land, was stripped of her magic powers by the evil pirate Risky Boots at the end of the last game. After Risky learns of a dark curse that threatens both herself and the entire world, she reluctantly asks Shantae to help her stop the Pirate Master from fulfilling his plan of unleashing dark magic. Shantae and Risky travel to five different islands, each hiding a Den of Evil, to take back Risky's powerful armour and weapons and find the location of the Pirate Master.
Whereas previous titles in the series have taken place exclusively in Sequin Land, Pirate's Curse features several self-contained islands and feels a bit more linear as a result. But true to the series' "Metroidvania" roots, each island contains several secrets and obstacles that can only be cleared after Shantae receives a certain item; each Den of Evil contains a special item that gives Shantae a new power. Although there are no genie powers this time around, each item feels great and serves multiple purposes; Risky's Hat allows Shantae to float in the air while falling and fly up windy passages, for example, while the Scimitar allows her to hit the ground Shovel Knight-style, revealing underground passages and previously unreachable items. Shantae can also purchase healing, defense and strength-increasing items that come in very handy, especially as the difficulty ramps up toward the end.
With a multitude of skills and items, Shantae and the Pirate's Curse controls like a dream. Every movement is sharp and responsive, and the controls are mapped out so well that they feel natural as soon as they're unlocked. Shantae's main attack, her "hair whip," feels fluid and powerful at all times and can be upgraded for extra speed and strength. The only control issues we found were in optional fighting skills that Shantae can buy in Sequin Land; these felt unnecessary and slightly tacked on. Luckily, none of the three optional fighting skills are very useful and can be ignored entirely.
Featuring what is possibly WayForward's best sprite work to date, Shantae and the Pirate's Curse is simply stunning in HD. Every character and location has been detailed to the tiniest pixel, and with five different islands that have very distinct visual themes, it's impossible to not be impressed. There are also large, whimsical character portraits displayed during dialogue, while the actual dialogue is filled with puns and clever wordplay. WayForward's predilection for revealing outfits is also on full display in Shantae and the Pirate's Curse, with skimpy costumes on all the female characters; one sequence featuring Shantae and her friends dressed as slave princesses borders on tacky, but it never feels exploitative or anything less than irreverent fun. The audio design is also exemplary, with songs feeling appropriate for each location and sound effects adding to the satisfaction of jumping and fighting.
There are plenty of collectibles and secrets to be found throughout Pirate's Curse, from Heart Squids (think heart pieces from the Zelda series) to Tinkerbats, which carry dark magic that must be collected. To ensure a beefy experience there are multiple endings based on which collectibles are found. Our first playthrough took us about 10 hours with about 90% completion. After clearing the game once, Pirate Mode is unlocked, which features Shantae with all her powers from the start. Speedrunners will no doubt enjoy this, as will players who want to see everything; Shantae and the Pirate's Curse is a very challenging experience, with an especially fiendish final stage that will test even the most patient gamers. But it should be noted that the game is never unfair, and every obstacle can be overcome with some thought and planning.
For the Wii U edition, the GamePad displays Shantae's inventory and a map of the current stage, as well as providing off-TV play. We occasionally found it disorienting to use the touch screen for the inventory in the middle of frantic boss battles, but it wasn't much of a problem; freeing up the TV screen for the lovely visuals is definitely appreciated.
Shantae and the Pirate's Curse is a triumph for WayForward and a treat for gamers. Very minor issues aside, this is one of the strongest titles on Nintendo's eShop and should be looked at as an example of how polished and robust a downloadable game can be. We're glad to see Shantae expand her horizons with the multiplatform Half-Genie Hero, but it's going to be hard to top this excellent Nintendo-exclusive adventure.