Review: Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse

Pirate puns are ret-2-go Captain!

Console: Nintendo Switch

Platformers were not a genre of games that I enjoyed all that much. They just never 'clicked' for me. Until I got introduced to the Shantae series, that is. I saw it in a Nintendo Direct here and there, yeah, but it wasn't until I saw it in action on somecallmeJohnny that the series really grabbed my attention. What drew me in was the games personality, its atmosphere, music and character design just oozed fun to me. So, when Shantae: Half-Genie Hero was on sale I went for it and ended up loving it.

Let's dive in.

Shantae is a young half-genie girl who acts the protector of Scuttle Town (and by extension the entirety of Sequin Land) using her magic powers to transform in a variety of animals. Most often than not it's her arch-enemy, the nefarious pirate Risky Boots, which threatens the land. Or at least, that's how it used to be. Due to the events of the last game, Risky's Revenge, Shantae has lost her magic. While taking a bath, she is confronted and captured by Risky who accuses her of stealing all of her pirate equipment and her crew, the Tinkerbats. The two discover that the evil Pirate Master has corrupted the Tinkerbats, transforming them into evil Cacklebats. Determined to stop his revival at all costs, Risky forms a reluctant alliance with Shantae to destroy the dens of evil giving him power.

While not any deeper than you would expect from a platformer, the story is interesting, clever and fun. Teaming up Shantae and Risky, having them as reluctant allies, was a good idea by the developers. Not only do the two work very well together with their opposite personalities, but it also gives the game a chance to shed more light on Risky and Shantae. To dive a little deeper in the relationship these arch-(fr)enemies have. Their interactions are well written and fun and even newcomers will have no problem following it all.

What also helps to make the story pop more is the game's atmosphere and the level variety. The personality and atmosphere is one of the defining features of the Shantae series. This is a bit hard to convey in writing (I recommend you look up some actual gameplay for this) but the best way to describe it is that the game oozes with fun. From the imaginative and colourful 2D sprites and background to the excellent 8-bit inspired soundtrack from composer Jake Kauffman.

The game is just filled with humour and an overwhelming sense of fun that will bring a smile to anyone's face. Again, hard to convey in word, but once you've experienced it you'll immediately know what I mean. The game nails it in this department. I have to say though, that I was kind of disappointed that the game didn't have as much dialogue this time around. The series, at least what I've come in contact with, has a lot of snappy, humorous dialogue. In Pirate's Curse, they seemed to have dialled this down a notch.

Yes, yes you would. You did that, like, two minutes ago.

The level design, and its variety, also helps in keeping the story going. The levels are set up as different islands where you travel to, all of which follow the same basic pattern. You arrive on an island and through a traditional, left to right, platforming section(s) you make at to the end where you'll find a dungeon. It's in these dungeons were the Metroidvania aspect of the game's genre comes in. You can compare them to the dungeons from The Legend of Zelda as well. The dungeons are one giant puzzle which you need to solve, with an emphasis on the one piece of pirate equipment you find in said dungeon to do so. At the end of the dungeon is the level's boss and after overcoming that you'll find the map to the next island/level, rinse and repeat.

The setup of the levels are repetitive, yes, but they're well designed and the game does spice up the formula from time to time. You have to run your friend from point A to point B through a do-or-die obstacle course for example. It's not much, but it's just enough to give each level some variety in the gameplay department. The levels themselves are also very well designed. None of the islands you visit are alike. They mix enough concepts that even the basic once, like an ice level for example, still feel fresh. The good variety in enemies (both in design and attack pattern) and the earlier mentioned graphics, background and music also help the levels pop.

Speaking about the gameplay, how is it? It's very good. It's standard fare for platformers but very executed very well. You can, of course, jump and for attacking Shantae uses her hair like a whip ala Castlevania style. She can crouch down to avoid incoming attacks or fit in small places. You can also buy a handful of extra moves, like a backflip, from the shop to round out Shantae's moveset if you so desire. New to the game is the pirate equipment, which replaces the traditional animal transformations. The gun, for example, gives Shantae a long-range attack, while the boots give you a (somewhat overpowered) super-dash.

Activating the pirate equipment is easy. They are mapped to buttons like ZL so you can activate them at any time without having to reposition your fingers. This doesn't break the gameplay flow (as much) as the animal transformations tend to do. I do still prefer the animal transformations though. I think they have more personality and I don't mind that it breaks up the pace. It gives you more time to look around the environment and spot collectables, for example. Aside from the pirate equipment, Shantae can also consume one-use items such as Flesh Pops to restore health the Bubble Shield to give you a temporary boost. While Shantae might start out rater limited, you'll be given so many options later in the game that you'll be able to pull off some impressive, and fun, feats.

The game also boasts a good difficulty level. It's not too hard, which makes it easy to just pick and play, but it's not a walk in the park either. The last 2 islands can be especially tough if you're not prepared. The game does have a flaw when it comes to the difficulty. I feel that the difficulty spike near the end was a little too high. Enemies suddenly dealing up to 4 times more damage in comparison to the last island. You also have to watch out with the save points, which I feel aren't always placed in a good way. This isn't as much of a problem through most of the game, except for boss fights.

For some inexplicable reason, the game doesn't automatically save after defeating a boss nor does it teleport you away. If you want to save and get to the next island, you have to backtrack all the way back to the beginning of the level. Let me tell you, nothing is more frustrating than finally defeating a though boss only to be forced to do it all over again because you ran out of health while getting to a save point.

The game's controls are tight and well mapped on the controller. No accidental or doing a move you didn't intend to do here! Well, during gameplay at least. While in menus or in conversations it's a slightly different story. Usually, the A button is mapped as yes/confirmation in dialogues and inventory screens while B is mapped as no/cancel. Not in this game. Both A & B are yes/confirmation and its very annoying. I've messed up plenty of times. The menu itself is also not ideal if you're not playing on the 3DS or Wii U. In those versions, stuff like the map and the inventory screen were on the touchscreen/gamepad. In the Switch version, you have to open up an additional screen to see it. Not a big deal, but something that did bother me from time to time.

That super dash that the boots lets you do? Definetely the strongest attack you can do, maybe even a bit too strong...

The game will last around 8 hours which might seem a little short, but those 8 hours are well spent. I didn't feel like the game ended too early nor did it drag anywhere, so what more could you want right? OK, if you do think that 8 hours is on the low side, the game does offer some options to extend your playtime. It has collectables that you can hunt down after getting more pirate equipment and this can easily give you another hour or two of playtime. There are not as many collectables as I would like, but they are there and do serve a purpose beyond just being collectables. You also unlock Pirate mode after beating the game once, which is essentially a hard mode with all of the pirate equipment unlocked right from the start. Perfect for speed-runners or if you're looking for some extra challenge.

Conclusion

Shantae and the Pirate's Curse is a blast to play. From its personality and atmosphere to its catchy soundtrack and graphics all the way to its gameplay and level design it's one hell of an enjoyable and fun ride. Its forgiving difficulty makes it easy for people to pick and play and I can highly recommend it to anyone as their first Metroidvania. The game is really good and definitely worth picking up if you're a fan of platformers, Metroidvania's or if you just liked what you read here. It's widely available almost everywhere, from the EShop to Steam, for not a lot of money at all at just under 10,-.

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