Thursday, December 31, 2020

Shantae and the Seven Sirens (NSW, PS4, XB1, PC, iOS) Review

Let's take a quick detour and break from the SuperPhillip Central Best of 2020 Awards before we publish the final award category of the show, and let's look at the final review of 2020. It's for a series of charming platformers equally as challenging as they are beautiful to look at. I'm talking of course about Shantae, and her latest outing is Shantae and the Seven Sirens. Here's the SPC review.

You'll want to answer these sirens' calls

Shantae and the Seven Sirens had quite the interesting rollout delivery method when it originally launched as an exclusive to Apple Arcade. It was rolled out in two parts, with the first launching last year and the second half coming out earlier this year. For a Metroidvania with one interconnected map (rather than the disconnected adventure that was Half-Genie Hero), that's quite the intriguing if not bewildering delivery method.

However, no doubt most Shantae fans were eager and more interested in the console versions, and the full release of Shantae and the Seven Sirens on consoles launched earlier this year as well with a physical version from Limited Run Games also coming. It's been a wild ride to see Shantae and the Seven Sirens' conclusion and final release, but fortunately, it was well worth the wait.

Shantae's latest adventure sees her leaving the familiar shores of Scuttle Island and heading to a new isle, Arena Island to be exact, to accept an invite to a "Half-Genie Festival". Here, five other Half-Genies who were part of the festival and who Shantae quickly became friendly with, disappear on the spot. Thus, it's up to Shantae to discover the whereabouts of her fellow Half-Genies and find out who is behind this new plot. Occasional beautifully drawn animated cutscenes appear during major sequences of the game--these are fully voice acted, though the subtitles tend to appear too early compared to the voicework--but most of the dialogue and story is told in-game with voicework interspersed every now and then. 

With Shantae's signature hair-whipping attack, she shows this tree's bark is worse than its bite.
Half-Genie Hero, the previous entry in the Shantae series, eschewed the familiar Metroidvania structure and gameplay that most fans of the franchise know and love. The game was a good one regardless, but not exactly the direction everyone wanted for the series. Thankfully for them, Shantae and the Seven Sirens returns to having one large, interconnected map to explore. Each major area of the map is color coordinated and features one warp zone to make it easier to navigate around the relatively sizable world. The only main issue I have with the in-game map is that it doesn't denote challenge caves with any sort of icon or means to mark their locations on the map. If you're like me, you'll most likely come across a cave that you don't have the proper power or ability for and promptly forget where you originally found it. 

Like typical games of its platforming genre style, in Shantae and the Seven Sirens, Shantae learns new abilities and powers to have her able to access new parts of the map. Though I think it's fair to say that Seven Sirens offers a more limited and linear structure to the Metroidvania formula. It's chapter-based, and generally has Shantae navigating a new area of the map, coming across one of the dungeon-like zones of her adventure, discovering the location of a genie locked inside a cage in said dungeon-like zones, learning a new ability, and using that ability in the dungeon to come across and defeat the boss lurking inside. Rinse and repeat with the occasional fetch quest interspersed in between. It makes for a predictable if not easy-to-follow pattern of play.

Throughout her adventure, Shantae will enter these dungeon-like areas of the game,
each with a Half-Genie to find and a boss to beat down.
As Shantae learns new abilities, it becomes especially nice to see Shantae's move set, specifically her animal transformations, more directly integrated into the game via buttons instead of selecting a new transformation from a menu. For example, using the Nintendo Switch's button nomenclature, pressing ZR will send Shantae dashing into Newt form, able to scale walls in the process, while a late-game ability allows our Half-Genie hero to transform into an octopus, double and triple jumping with ease. The ease and quickness of transforming allows the game's platforming to have a quicker, more enjoyable pace, so you're not constantly freezing the action.

 Learn new transformation abilities from rescued fellow Half-Genies....


...To access new areas of the map. Pure Metroidvania goodness, right?
Well, that's not entirely true. While the transformations don't pause what's going on the screen, the awkward Seer Dances do. These are Half-Genie dances, which require the player to hold down a button to charge up their dance and perform one of four unlockable abilities. From healing Shantae's health--which seems redundant considering there's no shortage of healing food to consume and hearts to collect from defeated enemies--to electrifying the zone around her, these Seer Dances have practical uses in and out of combat. However, one of these is rather obnoxious--not to use, but for its purpose. The first Seer Dance you get in the game reveals hidden objects in areas and rooms. In order to get 100% completion without a guide, you practically have to use this specific Seer Dance in every room and corner of the game to find specially located secret items. Maybe this idea should have been left on the old design document.

Whereas those specific Seer Dance-related collectibles are a pain to come across, other collectibles such as Squid Hearts, finding four and taking them into one of the game's many towns to get squished in relatively brutal fashion will expand Shantae's maximum amount of hearts by one. There is also a brand-new collectible to seek out in Seven Sirens and those are Monster Cards, randomly dropped by defeated enemies. You can not only collect these, but you can also equip up to three at a time, offering unique bonuses like increased magic, increased attack power, and faster movement speeds for Shantae's various transformations. 

With Seven Sirens' Monster Cards, you don't necessarily have to collect 'em all,
but a gem-mint complete collection is quite the appealing prospect, wouldn't you say?
Shantae and the Seven Sirens looks a mighty bit more unified visually compared to the previously released Half-Genie Hero. Forgoing the mishmash of 3D backgrounds and environments with 2D characters, Seven Sirens looks positively amazing and beautiful. The animations of all characters and enemies is truly something to behold, as everything is so detailed and more importantly, fluid. There is occasional slowdown when too much action happens on screen at once, but this isn't all too common an occurrence. On the sound side of Shantae and the Seven Sirens, the voice acting is as well delivered and Saturday morning cartoon-ish as ever, and the music, although not composed this time around by Jake "Virt" Kaufman, sounds similar to his work with a mix of delightful synth combined with chiptune sweetness. 

The bosses aren't the most amazing part of Seven Sirens, but they're enjoyable encounters all the same.
Through its 8-10 hour runtime for first-timers (plus new game+ and speed-running options for subsequent play-throughs), Shantae and the Seven Sirens offers plenty of clever, precise platforming action in a world and map that's ultimately enjoyable to explore. While I wouldn't call Seven Sirens Shantae's greatest adventure, it comes pretty darn close. Between the colorful, vibrant and detailed areas of Arena Island to navigate with relative ease, the amusing transformations that are integrated well, and the story that features amazingly done, oftentimes humorous, if not hilarious scenarios and dialogue, Shantae and the Seven Sirens is undoubtedly a winner in this pirate's book.

[SPC Says: B+] 

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