Developer WayForward has found success in adapting known franchises into fun, retro-inspired puzzle and platforming games, but the studio clearly has a lot of affection for its original creation, Shantae. Half-Genie Hero is the latest in the series, and though it’s not a perfect platformer, the detailed animation and charming dialogue show how much WayForward cares about Shantae – and it made me care about her, too.
Half-Genie abandons the pixelated, retro look of its predecessors for high-definition art, and the result is impressive. Every character, enemy, boss, and object moves with a fluidity often reserved for big-budget animated features. Just watching the characters loop through their idle animations is mesmerizing, and that motion extends to controlling Shantae, which feels great.
The visuals might be modern, but the gameplay retains the classic style WayForward has now become known for. Platforming dexterity is required, and controlling Shantae feels good enough to keep frustration at bay. Shantae moves well and is fun to control and fight with as she whips her hair at oncoming nefarious animals and pirates. I always landed on the platform I was jumping for and hit the enemy I was aiming at thanks to precise controls.
Shantae also earns an assortment of transformations allowing her to turn into animals like an elephant to break through walls or a spider to climb on ceilings. Tracking down new transformations is what allows you to explore new areas of levels, so finding them is rewarding, and most are as fun to control as Shantae. The act of transforming is strange, however, requiring you to open up a menu and time your selection for when it appears on-screen. I often selected the wrong transformation as a result, which is annoying, but does little to impede your forward progress in the level, or plot.
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Half-Genie Hero’s story is straightforward, with Shantae having to prevent bad things from happening, but the dialogue and characters make every conversation worth listening to. I was eager to talk to everyone and laughed often at characters poking fun at their own role in the narrative. This is the first Shantae game I have played, and I already feel a kinship to these previously established characters thanks to their wit.
Early in the game, before purchasing upgrades to make Shantae attack harder and faster, the challenge is high. Unforgiving checkpoints make the first bosses harder than they should be. The result is a difficult early game, and a breezy later game thanks to upgrades and transformations that lend Shantae new mobility options like being able to fly. Near the end, while bypassing platforming challenges and blowing past bosses, I yearned for a better difficulty balance that never surfaced.
Progress is mostly attached to replaying levels with your arsenal of expanding abilities and transformations to reach new areas. Only about half the levels are fun to revisit and explore for hidden treasures. For the other half, I struggled through multi-path areas trying to remember if I had already gone north with the monkey transformation, or if I needed to try south with the mermaid instead of the crab. Townspeople with hints and markers on each level showing you what you’re missing in each stage help alleviate this annoyance, but I still occasionally dreaded revisiting levels I thought I had fully dredged.
Shantae’s reliance on revisiting levels holds Half-Genie hero back, but the excellent platforming, myriad transformation abilities, and characters elevate it to an experience worth pursuing. The world of Sequin Land is a fun place to visit and I enjoyed my time there, even if I was forced to keep seeing the same sights.