Immediately upon seeing the title screen and hearing the game's main theme, you know that Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is another step forward for this series. Back in 2002, Shantae made her debut on the Game Boy Color to rave reviews but disappointing sales — hardly a shock when you take into account the GBC was on its last legs — but the purple-haired half-genie has persevered through the years and slowly built for herself a loyal fanbase. With each new release, it seems that WayForward has further distilled the essence of this series' gameplay and found new ways to improve and tighten it, and Shantae: Half-Genie Hero — the first game to be developed primarily with home consoles in mind — continues this trend; it's quite evident that WayForward pulled out all the stops in the making of this game. It won't do much to sway those who weren't interested in the previous releases, but it definitely stands as the best Shantae game yet and it's one that no fan will want to miss.
The story opens with Shantae having a dream in which a mysterious presence from the Genie Realm warns her of the coming of an evil force which will threaten both realms. As expected, the story never amounts to anything particularly memorable, but the writing and humour depicted throughout make up for it. The whole cast of memorable Shantae characters make an appearance here, and they keep the pace going at a decent clip. Instances such as Sky kicking a protesting Shantae off of her bird with a firm "Get!" or an attractive woman mistaking a drooling Bolo for a decorative statue help keep an upbeat, lighthearted tone, and lend the game a lot of charm that engages you in the narrative in a way that few other games replicate.
The presentation adds a lot to this as well; both the graphical style and the soundtrack are remarkable achievements. The previous Shantae games all had a wonderfully detailed, retro look to them, but Half-Genie Hero ditches that in favour of a hand-drawn 2.5D cartoon aesthetic that's reminiscent of DuckTales: Remastered. This writer was particularly concerned about the switch, but seeing the game in motion quickly wipes aside any doubts about the new direction. Environments are more colourful and detailed than ever before and the addition of 3D models creates an interesting juxtaposition between flat 2D characters and the more filled-out backgrounds. The two seamlessly fit together and create some beautiful scenes. We caught ourselves putting the hair whipping and platforming on hold more than once in order to just take a moment to drink in the environment.
The soundtrack backs this up as well; we'd go so far as to say it's the best one yet. It's no exaggeration to say there isn't a single bad track in the whole mix. Be it the incredibly catchy main theme with lyrics or the tropical sound of Mermaid Falls, this is some good skullcandy. We actually found ourselves looking forward to progressing further just to hear what new songs may come. WayForward has outdone itself with this soundtrack, as it adds a whole new layer to one's enjoyment of the levels.
Gameplay is largely reminiscent of the previous Shantae games, but this is certainly as good as it gets. You'll spend your time jumping through moderately difficult levels, whipping enemies with Shantae's long purple hair, and occasionally transforming into other animal forms in order to find secrets and traverse certain obstacles. There are more transformations than ever before here — with a good mixture of new and old — and they do a nice job of shaking up gameplay, though some of them do feel rather one note in their usefulness. You can spend any gems you collect in the shop and pick up upgrades for Shantae, such as faster whipping power or a fireball attack. To be honest, it feels like these upgrades make Shantae a bit too overpowered, but they nonetheless provide some nice character progression.
Carrying on more in the vein of Shantae and the Pirate's Curse, Half-Genie Hero strays further from the series' Metroidvania roots, but the spirit is still intact. Rather than one massive connected world, Scuttle Town acts as a hub from which you can access the six main worlds. This gives the game a level-based feel, but exploration and backtracking are strongly encouraged. You certainly won't be able to fully explore a world on the first run, so there's incentive to go back and play through a world in order to find heart containers, transformations and so on. You occasionally have to backtrack for story reasons, too, and this is mercifully where Half Genie Hero improves on its predecessors. It's pretty hard to get lost this time around, as NPCs are a lot more helpful and you can always ask a woman in the Bathhouse where to go next.
If there's one issue we have with Half-Genie Hero, it's that it feels a bit too short. If you collect everything and really take time to smell the roses, you'll be clocking in at around ten hours. Moving at a brisk pace and just clearing the story will probably take somewhere around five. Some of this has to do with the game being on the easy side and some has to do with the rather limited amount of content, but it definitely will leave you wanting more. Now, WayForward is currently working on several additional campaigns with other playable characters with distinct movesets and stories, so this could very likely be a temporary issue, but at the time of writing none of this has come to fruition yet. At the very least we would've liked the base campaign of this game to have been a little longer, but that doesn't detract from the stunning quality of what's on offer.
All told, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is exactly the game that fans of this series were clamoring for. The controls have never been so tight, the new visual style works wonders, and the writing is consistently funny and creative. It may feel like there could've been more to it, but what's there is top of its class, and WayForward has promised that more content is on the way. We absolutely give Shantae: Half-Genie Hero a recommendation; fans will find plenty to love, and newcomers will find that this is a great point to jump into the series. This is a shining example of WayForward's talent with 2D action games, and things have never looked better for Shantae.