By: Matthew Striplen
Welcome back to the magical realm of Sequin Land! Let’s join Shantae on her next adventure through the wonderfully colorful and cartoonish world as she battles both fearsome and silly foes alike in Shantae: Half Genie Hero.
WayForward always produces games with super tight controls, and Half Genie Hero is no exception. Every action feels natural, and the attacks all carry weight. Even Shantae’s various transformations handle well, although differently than her base form. I never once felt that a failure in combat or a platforming segment was anything other than my own fault.
The Shantae series has consistently produced visually vibrant games, but Half Genie Hero takes it to the next level. Colors burst from every corner, even in places typically devoid of interest, like a level select screen. The charming animations are almost more impressive than the designs themselves. No matter where you look on the screen, there’s always something fun going on.
Jake Kaufman remains one of my favorite video game composers. His work on the other Shantae games initially caught my ear, but most people finally came to appreciate him through Shovel Knight.
Much like the graphical presentation, the music teems with life and personality. The soaring horn call of the opening theme promises a grand adventure, and the pulsing beats of every level drive the player to forge ahead. Kaufman has certainly earned his place at the top of the industry.
Half Genie Hero adds several new gameplay elements in this installment. The addition of a wide variety of transformations adds tons of fun. Plus, each transformation can be upgraded with new abilities.
Although Shantae can only remember a limited number of transformation dances, she can exchange them for something new, should you find a hidden shopkeeper. Should you find that completing a quest requires a dance you no longer possess, simply return to the seller and trade back for the dance.
The item system has also been reworked. Instead of purchasing single-use weapons, players can purchase spells to summon weapons at will. The only trade off is that they consume magic. These spells can then be upgraded like any other ability.
This updated item system is far superior to the earlier versions. Having the items as single use rather than magic dependent discouraged their use, while having expanded access enriches the gameplay.
Other aspects remain more or less the same. Half Genie Hero still showcases stage replayability as a main feature. Like many Metroidvania games, as Shantae gains new abilities, she gains access to previously unreachable areas in old levels.
Each level offers an expansive area to explore. Tons of collectibles are scattered throughout the stage, some of which may not be reachable immediately.
Although the levels are huge and packed with charm, many missions force you to backtrack through older stages. Changes sometimes occur to the levels after fulfilling certain conditions, but that doesn’t alter the fact that you’re still trudging through the same space.
These backtracking missions often have players searching for one specific item or character, instead of trying to simply get to the finish. This can be a little frustrating since the MacGuffin could be anywhere in the stage, and it is often well hidden.
Other key items are hidden in very subtle ways. Tiny blue flowers grow in many places around Sequin Land. Most players would simply write them off as a part of the charming landscape, but once Shantae acquires her elephant transformation, she can crush them to reveal objects. Sometimes money pops out, but other times key items will appear.
In contrast, some areas are easily recognizable to the player as a secret that can’t be accessed yet, like a suspicious wall. These flowers are so innocuous that it’s difficult to remember where all of them are, and even easier to miss during a playthrough.
The theme of missing one key component and getting stuck is my biggest complaint with Half Genie Hero. At one point you’re given a piece of caramel and are explicitly told that the treat is specially made for dogs.
Naturally, I searched high and low for anything resembling a dog. Turns out, the only character capable of receiving the key item is a little girl, who doesn’t own a dog. This kind of misleading information wasted a ton of time, and it was essential to moving the plot forward.
Half Genie Hero offers some help with the backtracking missions through the use of dances (among other things). Dances allow Shantae to transform into a wide array of creatures, but they also have many other uses — the teleportation dance is easily the best for backtracking.
Each stage is divided into a handful of parts, and the teleportation dance allows players to skip from one part to another, thus saving a ton of travel time. If the goal actually resides in a segment that has already been skipped, never fear! Just use the dance again to warp back to the beginning of the stage.
Shantae: Half Genie Hero’s greatest strength is the vibrant universe established by the irresistible art design, animation and music. Those qualities alone are strong enough to warrant your attention. Coupled with solid platforming and many improvements over previous entries, Half Genie Hero is definitely worth your time.