Developer: WayForward Technologies, Inti Creates
Platform: PC via Steam [Reviewed], Wii U, Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: April 23, 2015
Price: 19.99 USD (Steam)
Like the great platformers Metroid and Castelvania, Shantae and the Pirates Curse needs time to reveal its full potential. Out of the gate, its primitive sprite-based visuals, campy dialogue and simplistic mechanics appear bewilderingly outdated. But give it an hour-or-so and the dialogue suddenly seems legitimately funny, the pixel-art visuals come to life, and the mechanics grow to include a number of original and interesting ideas. All of this makes Shantae and the Pirates Curse a fun and entertaining romp for its eight-plus hours of play, though it never truly rises above the classic platformers of yore that it heavily draws inspiration from.
For those unfamiliar with the Shantae series, the titular character is a half-genie (and belly-dancer) with magic powers. However, this time around, those powers have been completely stripped from her. Indeed, at the start, she can only run, jump, and whip her hair to attack enemies (which is amusingly upgradable by using shampoo). As the game goes on, she slowly collects pirate equipment, allowing her to shoot a gun, float using an over-sized pirate hat as a kite, use a sword to stomp, super-sprint with pirate boots, and air-jump by firing a cannon beneath her. The game teaches the use of these abilities with clever level design and provides ample opportunity to gain a mastery of them in the intricate levels that force you to use all of your skills at once.
The bits of story we see are told with such a self-referential and tongue-firmly-in-cheek sensibility that it’s hard not to laugh. The game begins when Shantae wakes up to an invasion of her home town, which she repels, only to find that some dark magic is at work. Teaming up with an old nemesis, she sets out to find the source of the evil and defeat the Pirate Lord. Along the way, she’ll meet a variety of amusing friends and foes (often both) who provide the game’s true charm.
The dialogue is told with high-resolution character portraits standing in for the speakers, though only in limited poses. There’s no voice work, except for the occasional name or exclamation spoken by Shantae. The dialogue is skippable, but doing so will skip some truly funny moments, whether it be the sudden intelligence boost Shantae’s friend gets the moment he puts on glasses, or the mayor’s unrepentant uselessness. This isn’t a game that takes itself seriously, though its platforming mechanics are nothing to laugh at.
The quality of the level design and character control are ultimately the life or death of the platformer, and fortunately, developer WayForward treats this with a deft touch. Shantae handles exactly as you might hope from a game inspired by the Metroidvania genre. She’s not Super Meat Boy, and she’s not trying to be, but her animations are responsive and intuitive, ensuring that it’s no one’s fault but your own if you fail to navigate carefully placed spike walls or a room full of charging enemies. The levels are also clearly designed with speed-running in mind, allowing for paths that move fluidly through them and rewarding practice and skill.
There aren’t many puzzles, but the game doesn’t hold your hand, either. You are expected to search where to go with almost no direction. A little bit of exploration will almost always reveal the right path, and if it doesn’t seem like you can cross a huge pit or scale a high wall, it’s probably because you can’t. At least yet.
You’ll often find places you can’t reach until you have a certain item or ability obtained later. While most of the time it’s an ability acquired within the same dungeon, there is an annoying habit of taunting you with unattainable items in early levels, requiring you to go back and collect them much later. This is a bit inconsistent given that sometimes you can reach hidden items by finding a secret route, while other times you simply have to come back much later with the requisite ability. I spent a fair bit of time trying to get to items that wouldn’t be in my reach until much later.
For the most part, these hard to find items come in one of two types: the twenty dark magic sources, and the heart squids. Collecting four heart squids lets you gain an extra health heart, similar to the heart pieces in the Legend of Zelda series. The dark magic does nothing on its own, but collecting all of the dark magic allows you to fight the true version of the boss of the game and get a different, better, ending.
Shantae also has access to a number of limited use-items and upgrades. Food and potions restore health, while a bubble shield deflects projectiles from harm. A spike ball can be generated to not only protect, but it encircles Shantae and acts as a weapon. Other items can increase her attack temporarily, or permanently boost her hair whip attacks or gun fire. Shantae can purchase these in the main town store, using gems collected from fallen foes. While having these items is a nice addition to the game, it can at times make the combat quite trivial. When the super version of the spike ball and the bubble shield are used simultaneously, entire levels worth of enemies are rendered mere punching bags for your amusement.
Indeed, combat isn’t the game’s strong suit, serving more as a distraction between platforming sections than a complete mechanism in its own right. Enemies tend not to do much more than use a single attack and die to the requisite amount of damage. There’s almost never any strategy in engaging them, and it’s for the most part unnecessary to use anything but your basic abilities in defeating them.
Boss fights are amusing and cleverly designed, such as the steel maggot that requires you to hit its buttons in a randomly determined sequence before you can do damage to it. Unfortunately, however, these bosses are rarely challenging or engaging, and don’t provide the sense of accomplishment in a flawless victory that you might get from the Mega Man or Metroid series.
Even after you finish the game, you may want to give it another go. A new-game-plus option, called Pirate Mode, is also a nice addition for replay value, letting you try your hand at speed-running the game with all of Shantae’s abilities unlocked from the start. With all of the items in reach the first time you get to them, you can speed-run either for mere completion or for the 100-percent mark.
Replayability is a good thing here, because at $19.99 USD on Steam, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is competing with a lot of high-quality games for your time. But if you enjoy solid platforming mechanics, self-referential humor, and a colorful world, there’s treasure to be found in the Steam release of Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse.