About 20 years ago, few probably could’ve guessed that the Shantae series would be firing on all cylinders by now. The initial release of this charming Metroidvania series saw a release late in the life of the Game Boy Color and never received the spotlight it deserved, but after about a ten-year hiatus, the series came back and has been seeing a new entry every few years. The latest of these is Shantae and the Seven Sirens, a sort of ‘back to basics’ entry in the series that sees a return to previous series staples like an interconnected map and themed dungeons. Through taking such cues from the handful of games that preceded it, Shantae and the Seven Sirens demonstrates in abundance that WayForward has nailed down what makes this series so enjoyable.
The story picks up with Shantae and her crew taking a vacation to a tropical island paradise, where a half-genie festival is being thrown in which Shantae and five other new half-genies are the guests of honour. Shortly after the curtain rises on their first belly-dancing performance, a sinister force swoops in and kidnaps everyone but Shantae. It’s soon revealed that their disappearance was linked to the eponymous Seven Sirens who live beneath the island, and it’s up to Shantae to save the day and hopefully still have time to get some sun on her much-needed vacation.
As expected for the series, the storyline itself isn’t anything particularly memorable, but nonetheless remains consistently excellent due to the strong writing at play. The plot is treated with a kind of snarky irreverence that shines through in some fashion in nearly all the dialogue, which keeps the tone lighthearted and bubbly. It’s a given that not all the jokes land quite the same, but it’s tough to not become enamoured with the constant barrage of self-aware humour and fourth-wall-breaking jokes. Shantae and the Seven Sirens doesn’t take itself seriously at all and it’s stronger for it, leading to some deliciously absurd subplots that are sure to delight.
Gameplay takes the shape of a standard Metroidvania, with you slowly unlocking access to more of the map as you gain more transformations and abilities for Shantae. You’ll spend most of your time traipsing back and forth throughout the map in search of new secrets and collectables to strengthen your combat prowess, but the storyline will also route you through several dungeons that play out a bit like the sort you’d find in older Zelda games. These dungeons are easily some of the highest points of Shantae and the Seven Sirens, as they feature the perfect blend of self-contained exploration, puzzle-solving and combat, along with a new upgrade of some sort that’s required to finish the dungeon and beat the boss at the end.
When not crawling through a dungeon, the overworld still has plenty of solid platforming challenges and light combat, but part of what makes it all such a dream to play through is the new approach to transformations. Taking a cue from Pirate’s Curse, transformations are now a simple matter of pressing a button or holding a direction to instantly activate the necessary ability. It may not sound like a major change, but the freedom of not having to pause and perform a dance every single time you need to climb a wall or break a block proves to have a surprising effect on the overall flow. Fans need not worry that the dances have been completely dropped, however, as they now take the shape of one-off spells that manage to still be helpful while not needing to be triggered on every screen. WayForward did an effective job of listening to fan feedback in this respect, as transformations are now easier to use than ever before, and each one feels like it’s properly utilized throughout the whole adventure.
Shantae’s combat prowess is more effective than ever, too, as you can now depend on both the traditional shop system and a new collectable card system for buffing her up. As per usual, gems can be spent on new sub-weapons and upgrades to your hair whip, giving Shantae plenty of room for growth while also expanding her repertoire to a rather diverse offering. Most enemies don’t require much more than a few quick whips to dispatch, but having the extra combat options goes a long way towards giving the gameplay more variety.
Defeated enemies will also occasionally drop cards, of which there are several dozen. These can do things like increasing certain movement speeds and raising the effectiveness of some tools, and you can equip up to three at a time on Shantae to utilize their benefits. Though not game-changing by any means, it’s satisfying how this adds a light means of creating a ‘build’ for Shantae, and the number of available cards practically guarantees that there’s always something new to try out as you keep progressing.
Shantae and the Seven Sirens clocks in at around ten hours to beat on your first playthrough, but you’re encouraged to keep re-running it via New Game+ and speedruns, with new win screens being unlocked for hitting certain objectives. Some may decry the relatively short length, but we’d argue that this is a great example of the ‘less is more’ principle in play. Those ten hours are a good time, and we found ourselves jumping back in for another run immediately upon the first clear. There’s something to be said about a game that’s designed to be all killer and no filler, offering up a somewhat brief but consistently great experience that’s not concerned with wasting your time.
WayForward decided to splash for some flashy animated cutscenes this time around, and they add a great deal of production value to this short but sweet adventure. Upon booting up the game, you’re greeted by an opening movie produced by none other than Studio Trigger, and various short scenes will also play at key moments in the story as you progress. These scenes are each impressively well animated, and they match the 2D art style beautifully. WayForward has tossed out the 3D backgrounds and environments of Half-Genie Hero in favour of an all-2D approach, and it’s a change for the better. Though the old look was excellent in its own right, this slightly adjusted art style gives the adventure an overall more coherent feel. Each screenshot looks like a piece of concept art in the best of ways, and WayForward takes full advantage of this with the varied and colourful island setting it’s chosen.
Unfortunately, the legendary Jake Kaufman didn’t return to compose the soundtrack for Shantae and the Seven Sirens, but we’re pleased to report that the music hasn’t suffered a major dip in quality in his absence. The whole soundtrack consists of an energetic mixture of chiptune and pop music, and there are plenty of catchy tracks here that’ll stick with you even after you’ve put down the game. Alongside this, voice acting remains top-notch across the board, with each character putting on a suitably hammy and over the top performance.
In many ways, it feels like Shantae and the Seven Sirens is the culmination of everything WayForward has learned since that initial release a little less than two decades back. Shantae and the Seven Sirens pulls some of the best elements from the titles that came before it – such as the dungeons and fast transformations – while adding in several cool new ones too, like the collectable cards and lovable new characters. A short but sweet runtime, well-drawn visuals, a catchy soundtrack and a well-designed map make this one an easy recommendation to anybody looking for the next must-have Metroidvania for their Switch.