This Week in Games - Shantae: Half-Genie Hero

by Dustin Bailey,

We're inching ever closer to the end of the year, and that means the tide of news and new releases has slowed to a mere softly lapping trickle. So have fun catching up on Final Fantasy XV and the Last Guardian before your favorite gaming podcast spoils every secret for their Game of the Year deliberations.

But lo! There is a new release on the horizon, and it's one of some significance—at least if you, like me, are an annoying hipster who was indie gaming before it was cool.

Impressions - Shantae: Half-Genie Hero

The latest entry in WayForward's Shantae series was funded through Kickstarter way back in 2013, way before the heady days when I started writing about video games on major web sites. In the interests of full disclosure: I backed that Kickstarter, and this column is based on early code provided to backers—the same code being provided to outlets for review coverage.

Half-Genie Hero is the first game in the series to be built from the ground up for HD home consoles, and it's beautiful. I'll always have a soft spot for the pixel art that helped to define the previous games, but the 2D artwork here is incredible. Every single sprite, from small enemies to enormous bosses, is filled with personality and life, blended into the 3D backgrounds with impressive lighting and shading that gives even two-dimensional elements a great deal of visual depth. It looks good in stills, but it's even more impressive in motion.

Shantae has always been a little bit Zelda, a little bit Metroidvania, with open-ended worlds to explore and sprawling, puzzle-filled dungeons to conquer. At first glance, Half-Genie Hero steps back from those exploration elements in favor of levels far more focused on action and platforming challenges. Levels spoke off from a hub, similar to Pirate's Curse, but this game does away with Metroid-like maps and non-linear levels.

That focus on action has made this the best-playing entry in the series. The trademark hair whip is faster, tighter, and more satisfying. Jumping controls are pitch-perfect, and quickly pogoing across moving platforms feels exactly as it should. This is a terrific action game, with wonderfully varied levels. Deserts, jungles, ancient ruins with sliding platforms, magic carpet races, and a nefarious mermaid factory, each of which has its own feel, and many of which have unique mechanics unto themselves.

At the tap of a button Shantae will start dancing, and pressing a direction in this dance mode will let you make a magical transformation into a variety of creatures. There's the traditional wall-climbing monkey and brick-busting elephant, along with new forms like the mouse, which can crawl through tiny mazes, and the crab, which can walk along the ground underwater. You gain new forms over the course of the game, and returning to previous areas with new forms allows you to open up new paths and find hidden secrets.

That's typical of the Shantae series, but the linearity of the levels here can make that kind of exploration a bit of a drag. You'll have to revisit previously cleared locations again and again, and since those levels are basically a straight line from start to finish—complete with save points between each screen—you lose out on that feeling of exploring a wide-open maze of a world. It's not like you're revisiting levels just for secrets and upgrades, either. After every new level, you have to return to an old one, sometimes with multiple doodads to collect across multiple stages, all in service of opening up the next bit of the game.

I'm closing in on the end after just a handful of hours into the game, and while that's typical of Shantae, it is a bit disappointing. The core action is absolutely fantastic, it looks beautiful, and the soundtrack is amazing. But the dichotomy of linear platforming and more open-ended exploration is—so far—keeping either end of the game from living up to its full potential.

I'll drop a couple paragraphs of final thoughts in next week's column, but for now? This is a beautiful platformer with amazing controls, but it's a bit too slight to offer an unequivocal recommendation.

NEWS

NINTENDO SHOWS MORE ABOUT THE SWITCH, THEN ANNOUNCES WHEN YOU CAN LEARN MORE ABOUT THE SWITCH

Nintendo took to the mainstream media for the second public appearance of the Switch, bringing the new console to the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where our host was utterly mesmerized by the new device. Miyamoto's moment playing the Mario theme with the Roots is probably the bigger thing out of all of this (because it was ADORABLE), but it was our first glimpse of live gameplay on the system. Hey, guess what? Breath of the Wild plays on the TV until you take the gamepad away, then it plays on the that screen. You might say it “switches.”

The company also announced the exact time and date of the stream which will no for real this time reveal the Switch. That's January 12th at 11PM Eastern, so be prepared for a late night if you're that kind of nerd. (I know I am.) Given that the console's expected to launch in March, I would be surprised if we didn't see a price and date come out of that stream. A New York press event will follow the next day, which will lead to our first hands-on reports about the console. Will that mean I can finally put an end to the weekly Switch updates, and just treat it like a regular video game console? I await the revelation with bated breath.

XBOX PLAYERS GET A JRPG HOLIDAY GIFT

Do you own an Xbox One and really like JRPGs? Statistically, probably not. But if you do, there's good news! Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey, two games from back when Microsoft still thought their brand had a shot in Japan, are now backwards-compatible on Xbox One. But wait—there's more. Lost Odyssey is free for the month of December. It may not be the greatest RPG ever released, but if you're an Xbox owner reading this column you're probably so starved for Japanese role-playing that you should just take what you can get.

SHENMUE III IS IN THE “FINAL STAGE” OF DEVELOPMENT

Yeah, Shenmue III is still happening! That wasn't just a beautiful fever dream! In fact, it's closer to happening than ever before. According to a Famitsu interview (helpfully translated by Gematsu), development is heading into the “final stage.” What does that mean? Who knows! But Yu Suzuki says we should expect video of the game early in the new year. They're also willing to take pre-orders for the PC version as of today, so if you like buying products sight unseen, you know what to do.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

SHANTAE: HALF-GENIE HERO
Developer: WayForward Technologies
Publisher: WayForward Technologies
Platform: PlayStation 4 / PlayStation Vita / Xbox One / Wii U / PC
Release Date: December 20
MSRP: $19.99

Shantae finally goes HD her first game developed from the ground up for home consoles. It's still a cute, sometimes sexy platformer that draws inspiration from tons of classic titles to create an identity all its own. Half-Genie Hero sees our titular magical girl once again belly-dancing her way to magical transformations that let her access new areas, hair-whipping enemies along the way in a grand adventure to stop the evil buccaneer Risky Boots.

WILD GUNS: RELOADED
Developer: Natsume
Publisher: Natsume
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release Date: December 20
MSRP: $29.99

Regarded as a 16-bit classic, Natsume's Wild Guns was nonetheless a late-era SNES game that initially faded into obscurity, only now commanding ridiculous premiums on eBay. But why pay reseller markups when you can enjoy a new and improved version built for modern gaming machines? Wild Guns: Reloaded updates the classic shooting gallery with new stages, new characters, and simultaneous four-player action. Otherwise, this new edition retains the graphics and design that made the original a cult hit.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
Telltale's the Walking Dead enters its third season with a big two-part opener, featuring a grown-up Clementine and a cast of characters new and old.

That's it for this week! See you next time!


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