For the fifth time in the franchise’s storied history, half-genie Shantae is here, and she means business. Yet, that isn’t her initial objective at the start of the game. In the beginning of developer WayForward’s Shantae and the Seven Sirens, Shantae and her mini-entourage are taking advantage of a well deserved vacation to Paradise Island. All Shantae has to do to pay for the vacation is participate in a performance for the inaugural half-genie festival. Here she meets four other female half-genies that are as spunky and unique as Shantae herself. Yet during a test run for the big performance the following night, all the half-genies on stage disappear, except Shantae.
Shantae’s adventure begins with her on the search to find all of her missing new friends by searching around and beneath the island. Exploration and map layout is typical of a game within this genre; you gain abilities that open up previously closed areas within an interconnected world. Combat is pretty basic with just one melee attack. That melee attack consists of Shantae whipping her hair back and forth, pounding her enemies into submission. Magical abilities such as a fireball, homing rocket, and protective bubble add to the offensive and defensive repertoire.
Shantae and the Seven Sirens adds a new card collecting system to the series as well. Most enemies have a chance of dropping a card, which gives Shantae ability enhancements once enough of them have been unlocked. Finally, it wouldn’t be a Shantae game without the transformation ability. This time around, Shantae seamlessly transforms from a newt, to a gastropod, to a tortoise, to a frog, and even an octopus, depending on the situation.
One thing that is constant throughout the entire game is the beautiful animation. The 2D hand painted visuals are stunning and are accompanied by energetic cinematics from the Japanese animation studio, Trigger. Not as constant, but fairly frequent, is the comedic writing. At times, it feels like the game is trying a little too hard to be witty. But more often than not, it hits with the comedic moments. The funniest moments come from Squid Baron, a recurring character within the series that is a scene stealer. And I always enjoy retro sounding video game music, especially something that reminds me of the original Contra.
Something that is always important for a platformer is tight controls, and Shantae and the Seven Sirens delivers on that front. Shantae strikes the perfect balance of being light but not floaty, yet feeling properly grounded within her environment. Enemy hitboxes and attack patterns are also perfectly constructed and executed. This makes exploring and re-exploring the map fun, rather than a chore.
The briefness of the game (took me about seven hours to beat the game without any guidance) might be seen as a negative for some, but I see it as a positive. The game doesn’t overstay its welcome within a normal playthrough and completionists can get more out of it by completely scouring the map, if they desire. And most importantly, the time spent is fun. It’s not tedious or frustrating, but rather an enjoyable fairly light-hearted romp.
The game isn’t without its flaws and questionable design choices. Not being able to drop down from a ledge the character is currently on in a modern platformer was initially shocking, and ultimately frustrating. And for a game that takes place on an island and roughly two thirds of the map being below the surface, gaining the ability to swim so late in the game really didn’t make sense.
Another frustrating mechanic is fast travel. There are designated warp areas that allow Shantae to teleport to any of the other previously unlocked warp locations. Unfortunately, you can’t just select the location from the map and fast travel there. Combine that with the warp location for the first main area of the game inexplicably being a screen away from the area itself, a lot of time is wasted going from point A to B to A, etc. Finally, the damage numbers don’t really make any logical sense. Shantae and her enemies don’t have health bars with visible numbers attached to them. Therefore, it doesn’t really make a difference if you’re seeing that you’ve dealt or incurred 1, 2, or 9 damage. If you don’t know what the total health is, why bother?
In the end, Shantae and the Seven Sirens overcomes its issues with a variety of fantastic visuals, tight controls, and a new cast of characters that mesh perfectly with the old characters. The easy difficulty and briefness of the game might deter some, but new game plus, speedruns, and no heart upgrade runs counter this. Even though the wheel doesn’t get reinvented, it’s a nice shiny spoke that gets the job done.