For as much of a WayForward fan as I am, I’ve actually never touched their flagship franchise, Shantae. The first game came out late in the Gameboy Colour’s lifespan and by that point I had already moved onto the GBA and didn’t think to pick it up. When the series was revived on the DS eShop, I never played it, because the eShop was only available on the DSi and I didn’t feel like chipping out for the upgraded model. The series has kept on rolling though and the latest entry, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, has just come out for the 3DS and has landed on my review slate. While I’m going into this without the context of the series’ past entries, I’ve heard nothing but good things about the franchise, and I figured it’s better to be late than never when it comes to good games. That adage proved to be true thankfully as Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a delightful little metroidvania style platformer; that said if you are new to the series like I was, I’d recommend going back and checking out the older games first.
A big reason why I would caution any new players against jumping right in, is because the story is heavily focused on already established characters and events, and as such it just doesn’t have the proper impact if you’re unfamiliar with those things. The game starts with Shantae, now a normal human being after having her genie magic taken away in the last game, saving her adopted home of Scuttle Town from the Ammo Baron, who has taken it over after cheating its mayor out of the deed. This side plot though is ultimately put aside when Shantae’s long time rival/nemesis, Risky Boots, shows up claiming that her gear and crew has been stolen by the Pirate Master, an evil force that was sealed away years ago by Shantae’s mom and all of the other genies. In the face of his return, Shantae and Risky form an uneasy partnership and head out to reclaim Risky’s stuff and stop the Pirate Master from reviving and taking over the world. As you can imagine, not having a good idea of Shantae and Risky’s past encounters makes the incredulity of them working together lack a little punch. Weakened for that same reason are the reveals of the many clearly referential characters and events that you’ll come across. That said, I’m sure those nods to the franchise’s past as well as the central conceit of lifelong foes working together will be a treat for any veteran Shantae fans out there. Looking at the story from an overall perspective, it’s a little light but it’s also appropriately light in tone, they interject a lot of humor in between all the fan-service and the dialogue has a refreshingly bubbly pace to it. While the game can get a little too into referencing its own lore and back-story at times, the base writing here is entertaining enough that it’ll illicit a few chuckles from newcomers to the series as well as those who are already in on all the in-jokes.
Of course you don’t need a degree in Genie Genealogy to enjoy the gameplay on display here; WayForward have always been masters of the platforming side-scroller and Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is yet another example of that. It falls neatly into the metroidvania subgenre, featuring standard side scrolling action with a map that’s opened up gradually over time by acquiring new power-ups. That said there are a few quirks here and there and even that more traditional gameplay is executed in a perfectly enjoyable manner. Probably the most interesting thing here is the layout, as rather than taking place entirely within one large map, the game is split up across a number of smaller islands, each with their own theme. While you will end up tackling these islands in a linear fashion, the game smartly gives you plenty of quests that require you to jump between the various maps and the collectibles are hidden in such a way as to make back-tracking worthwhile. Similarly all the upgrades you’ll get throughout the story feel like more than just weird keys for weird doors; they fit naturally into the gameplay, expanding both your platforming and combat abilities. Not only will they allow you to find all sorts of secrets but they’ll also expand your range of movement, greatly expediting general exploration. It feels exactly the way a good metroidvania should in that sense; your actual skill matters as much as the upgrades you’re picking up and the two inform one another as a result. Especially near the end of the game, mastering the platforming and figuring out how to combine it with all the upgrades you’ve found becomes essential. Thankfully, the difficulty curve is very gradual and accommodating; while it certainly doesn’t shy away from offering up a hearty (and occasionally frustrating) challenge, it takes the time to properly and naturally ease players into things.
Finishing off with the presentation, WayForward is firing on cylinders once again, bringing in another excellent soundtrack by HBHUD favourite composer John “virt” Kaufman and draping the game in vibrant colourful art and fun bouncy pixel animation. Visually this game is very similar to one of WayForward’s other series, Mighty Switch Force, sharing much the same palette and curvaceous art style, especially when it comes to the character design. Shantae herself, as well as most of the other female characters in the game, have a very curvy perky design that some might find borders on uncomfortable, but I think is just fun. WayForward clearly enjoys it as well, considering there is just a little bit of jiggle in the sprites and a couple of the quests are clearly designed purely to show off the *cough* art assets. Not to make it sound tawdry or anything, nothing truly untoward ever happens in this game, it is rated E after all. Quite simply, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse understands that it has some attractive female character designs and uses that to poke some harmless fun, which frankly I can get behind. As for the sound design, Kaufman as always delivers a catchy pleasant score that perfectly underlines the game’s happy-go-lucky feel; I wouldn’t say it’s as good as his Shovel Knight soundtrack from earlier this year but it’s still going to find its way into my regular music rotation. Aside from that, the sound effects are good and what little swatches of voice acting there is sound fine. I’ve seen a couple of people saying that they found the voice acting for Shantae to be kind of annoying, but it never bothered me. Overall it’s a stellar looking and sounding game, which is pretty much what I’ve come to expect from this developer.
If you’ve enjoyed the past Shantae games then picking this up is something of a no-brainer, however for those less acquainted with this magical world of genies and pirates, there is still plenty here to enjoy. If you just want some quality metroidvania style fun, then Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse will happily deliver, but a pre-existing knowledge and appreciation of this franchise will make your experience with this game significantly more enjoyable. Even without that context though I quite enjoyed my time with it and as such I’m giving Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse a 4 out of 5 stars.