Monday, June 22, 2020

Shantae and the Seven Sirens Review

Developer: WayForward
Platforms: PC, NS, PS4, XBO
Price: $30
Version Played: Switch

I've been a Shantae fan since the GBC game, and even though I love the series, I know the games have been pretty hit or miss. The previous game, Half-Genie Hero, while not a bad game, was a miss for me. It wasn't what I wanted from a Shantae game at all. I know I'm not the only one who feels that way, and I guess the developers, WayForward, heard the fans because Shantae and the Seven Sirens goes back to the series' Metroidvania roots. I'd even say this is the most Metroid-like of all Shantae games.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens is structured very differently from Pirate’s Curse or the first 2 Shantae games. It has a huge interconnected world, but it doesn’t have that Simon’s Quest or Wonder Boy-like layout in which you mostly travel by going left or right. There is still a top layer to the world, with lots of areas to explore and a few towns to visit, but most of the game is set underground, like in Super Metroid. Dungeons are still in and they’re still self-contained, though. It’s not like Super Metroid in that the whole game takes place on the same map.

I like this layout, but I don’t prefer this layout. I don't think it really fits Shantae. Having most of the game take place beneath the island means that it’s mostly caves, temples, and underwater areas with metal walls. Everything is dingy, drab, and totally unlike the deserts, forests, and beaches found in previous games. I want more outdoor areas in Shantae. This game is lacking a lot of that bright and colorful Shantae flavor that I’m used to.

The dungeons are still classic Shantae. They’re very Zelda-like, and have you running all over looking for keys, solving puzzles, and platforming. A lot of the enemies, puzzles, and obstacles felt very familiar to me, but there’s some new stuff in there too. I feel like they especially tried to do new things with the bosses, but they were all pretty easy. You get a ton of money in this game, so I had no problem buying all the hair and subweapon upgrades and becoming a Half-Genie God pretty early in the game. That’s probably a big part of why everything was so easy.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Shantae game without a bunch of in-between dungeon fetch quests! But don’t worry, these are probably the best in the series, and not overdone, like in Half-Genie Hero. The quests in Seven Sirens have you exploring the world outside the dungeons for items to get the other Half-Genies to fuse their magic with Shantae. There’s still some of the usual funny, random item trading stuff too. The main fusion magic quests are cool because they tie in closely with the story and feel natural for Shantae to have to do. Unlike in Half-Genie Hero, where they felt like filler.

The Half-Genie fusion magic works like dances did in past games, except they’re not tied to animal transformations. They’re more like spells you use to attack and solve environmental puzzles, like charging up machines and moving walls around. They’re kind of like the medallions in A Link to the Past. There’s one that reveals hidden platforms, lightning, earthquake, and one that heals you and makes plants grow. They add an extra layer of depth to the puzzle solving in the game, and give Shantae a reason to dance, so they’re a welcome addition.

There are animal transformations in Seven Sirens, but there’s no dancing involved. You just transform when you need to. They’re instant, like Risky’s gear in Pirate’s Curse. There’s a Newt form that lets you climb on walls, a critter with a pointy shell you can drill through sand with, a turtle that lets you break bricks with stomps and dashes like a Koopa, a frog for swimming underwater, and an octopus form that gives you a triple jump. They’ve finally found an elegant way to give Shantae her trademark transformations without clumsy dancing mechanics, and I love it. Although, I do kind of miss being able to stay in the animal forms. I wouldn’t object to them bringing that back for a remake of the first game. Just as long as the dances are quick.

There’s also equippable cards in the game. Don’t worry, there’s no card minigame! These cards drop from monsters and give you little perks, like faster crawling, more damage in certain forms, and defensive bonuses. It’s very similar to many other trinket systems in other Metroidvanias. I don’t think it was really needed in Shantae, but it doesn’t hurt anything.

I'm pretty underwhelmed by the graphics in this game. I really don't like the dull and muted colors. It's an issue both underground and above. This is supposed to be a tropical island, but it always looks like there’s a cloud covering the sun. I want more vibrant colors in Shantae. A lot of the backgrounds also have that same hand painted look from Half-Genie Hero, but they're not polygons, so it looks like there's something missing. It looks like these are textures for polygons, but everything is flat. It looks weird knowing what HGH looked like. The character sprites and dialogue portraits still look pretty nice, though. The performance is also pretty good on Switch. I did run across a few areas where the framerate dropped when there were a lot of enemies on-screen, but it was a smooth 60 everywhere else.

I also have to mention the cutscenes. This game has an animated intro song by Studio Trigger, who worked on Kill La Kill. Animated cutscenes (by Wayforward) also play throughout the game. There’s a lot of them too. Every boss has an animated intro and other special moments are also accompanied by animated cutscenes. It’s a really nice touch. It makes me want a Shantae animated series.

The usual Shantae composer, Jake Kauffman, did not work on this game, so the music sounds very different from other Shantae games, but I thought it was still pretty good. There’s a lot of familiar Shantae melodies in here, and also some music that reminded me of old-school games, like Castlevania and Monster World IV. This game also has the most voice acting I’ve heard in a Shantae game. A lot of the cutscenes have voice acting, and Shantae and friends throw in a lot of one-liners during dialogue. Even more than in Half-Genie Hero.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens is a pretty fun game, but it never reaches the heights of Pirate’s Curse. That’s still the best Shantae game. Seven Sirens might be the second best Shantae game, though. I really like the dungeons, the game isn’t overly padded with fetch quests, and Shante’s magic and transformations make her feel very powerful. I also really appreciate them going back to the Metroidvania style. I don’t think the Metroid-like underground map really fits the series, though. I like the Simon’s Quest style much better. I also think graphics look pretty bland, and the awesome cutscenes make them look even worse by comparison.