It’s interesting to track the progression that WayForward's Shantae series has undergone over the past decade. Beginning in 2002, the original title was released on the Game Boy Color, an unfortunately timed release that was mostly overshadowed by the recent introduction of the Game Boy Advance. Despite an attempted sequel on the newest handheld hardware, Shantae wasn’t seen again for eight years until Shantae: Risky’s Revenge became available on the DSiWare service. Fast-forward another four years to now when we’re not only seeing the release of one new game, but two completely new entries in the Shantae collection on a plethora of different consoles.
Though taking a bizarre path to get to where it is today, the Shantae series is one that is deserving of all the attention is has been receiving recently. Jumping from console to console with mostly unsteady footing, each game in the series has been nothing short of fantastic. Both of the first two games are currently available on the 3DS via the eShop and Virtual Console services, and now we’re treated with Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, the latest instalment in the series, and it’s every bit as good as we could have hoped for.
Picking up not long after the events of Risky’s Revenge, our purple-haired hero wakes up in Scuttle Town, the home that she is determined to protect, despite her missing genie powers. Without delving too deep or giving up any spoilers, the plot kicks off immediately with the reintroduction of the pirate Risky Boots, Shantae’s arch nemesis, who comes bearing surprising news about an even greater threat called The Pirate Master. Deciding to put the past behind them, Shantae and Risky reluctantly join forces to venture out and stop the Pirate Master before things get out of hand. It’s a classic use of the “enemies working together for the greater good” trope that we see so often in media, but it’s refreshing to see something new introduced into this series rather than relying too heavily on the same stock characters.
Pirate’s Curse is easily defined as an adventure platformer with Metroidvania style progression. As you explore the open 2D world, more areas will become accessible as you progress through the campaign and collect new items; this game doesn’t go too far out of its way to stand out from others in its genre, but it does manage to expand the premise outward, creating a huge world to explore with an ample cast of characters.
Unlike previous Shantae games that featured a single seamless map filled with varied environments, Pirate’s Curse instead opts for several smaller worlds disguised as islands that are accessible from Risky’s ship. Despite not boasting an entirely interconnected world, a fair amount of traipsing back and forth between islands is necessary for collecting all items and exploring every last inch of the map. Not having to completely traverse one sprawling area over and over again just to get to the next point is a welcome change, as it cuts down on time wasted in travel. While revisiting areas may work well for some games, the fact that you’re not collecting experience points or levelling your character up in this franchise can make repeatedly running through the same areas feel both tedious and unnecessary. There is still a bit of necessary backtracking, but this feels like a much more streamlined version of the exploration heavy games that came before it.
As can be expected from a Shantae game, or almost any platformer that WayForward has put out recently, the controls are not only simple but they’re exceptionally tight. This is especially apparent during some of the more precise platforming sections of the game, working your way through labyrinthine dungeons and making short work of long jumps. The 3DS’s touchscreen is also implemented well, optionally displaying your inventory, key items, and a world map; items can quickly be selected using virtual buttons on the bottom screen, making it remarkably easy to see what you have available at any given moment and use those items on the run.
To put it lightly, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a difficult game, but that’s not to say that it is entirely unforgiving. As you progress and delve further into the plot enemies encountered become stronger and more diverse, but so does your arsenal. You will also come across increasingly more complex dungeons and puzzles to solve, but as your move set expands you find that there is never really a point where you’ll feel completely stuck after enough trial and error. Save rooms are abundant in the open world, usually placed strategically at a dungeon entrance or inside a town, and dying means replaying small sections rather than being sent back a significant amount – assuming you’re taking advantage of the opportunities to save. This is the rare type of game that allows itself to be accessible to a new audience while simultaneously sticking to its classic roots.
Pirate’s Curse retains the same look and tone of previous games in the series, this time enhanced by the 3DS’s superior processor and display. WayForward’s signature art style is once again present, but not necessarily to the betterment of the game. While the brightly coloured environments, wacky characters and upbeat soundtrack may appeal to a wide audience – including the younger 3DS owners – there is an unnecessary level of sexualization when considering the audience that is being targeted. It all seems a bit tongue-in-cheek based on the exaggerated dialogue and abundant jokes, but the tiny waists and heaving cleavage jumping out at you per the handheld’s 3D effect can be a bit much. If you’re not the type to be bothered by these affectations, especially considering that they don’t worsen the meticulously crafted gameplay, then feel free to ignore our warning, but do keep in mind that this might not be one for the kids.
Looking past that, the 3DS’s display capabilities are used particularly well to bring the environments to life. WayForward has always had a knack for adding subtle details into its lush settings, but this time around those little intricacies are displayed in a layered parallax, making for an absolutely gorgeous experience. The soundtrack has also been expanded, resulting in a massive mix of classic Shantae tracks along with new jams to fill the new lands. It’s obvious that so much effort has gone into making this the best game that it could possibly be.
Whether or not you’re a platforming fan, and whether or not you’ve played any of the previous titles in this series, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is an exceptionally well-crafted game that should not be ignored. The art style and sense of humour aren’t going to appeal to everyone, but they work well together and manage to set a very specific tone that WayForward has clearly spent time perfecting. There is little reason for any 3DS owner to avoid adding this gem to their treasure collection.