The Shantae series, arguably indie developer WayForward’s flagship franchise, has been around for over a decade but has only had two entries, those being the Game Boy Color Shantae and the downloadable DSi title Shantae: Risky’s Revenge, which eventually made its way to iOS and Steam as well.
Now, it seems that the developer is making up for lost time, as not only is the Kickstarter-funded home console title Shantae: Half-Genie Hero in the works for release next year, but the series has also returned to its roots with Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse for Wii U and 3DS, and it’s done so with style. Pirate’s Curse is a clever, well-balanced and straight-up fun sidescrolling action-adventure game, and some of its design choices and new mechanics make it the most fun and accessible entry thus far.
Taking place after the first two games, the intro sees Shantae once again encountering her longtime nemesis, the pirate captain Risky Boots, who is convinced that our titular heroine has something to do with transforming members of her crew into out-of-control, bat-like monsters. It doesn’t take long for both of them to discover that a long-imprisoned pirate king is in danger of being resurrected and spreading an unstoppable evil across the land, so the two form an uneasy alliance and set out to prevent him from returning.
In terms of core gameplay and presentation, Pirate’s Curse is very similar to Risky’s Revenge, even offering a few returning enemies, allies, and locations, though thankfully everything has been revamped to take advantage of the 3DS’ higher resolution and widescreen aspect ratio. The main returning location is Shantae’s seaside hometown, while the rest of the environments are new islands that Shantae can access from Risky’s ship, which serves as a stage select menu of sorts.
The fact that the locations are a little more compact this time, as opposed to the idea Risky’s Revenge presented of every area being connected to form one huge map, works in this game’s favor, as it takes less time both to traverse individual areas as well as travel to previously-accessed ones.
Another gameplay shift comes via alternate powers. In previous games, Shantae used magical transformations to take alternate forms that could navigate through environments normally unavailable to her regular self. That’s all gone in Pirate’s Curse, as we now have readily available pirate-themed weapons and items, such as a pistol for projectile attacks and an oversized captain’s hat that doubles as a parachute.
Not only are these abilities quicker to use than transformations (while allowing Shantae to retain trademark abilities, like her hair whip), but the game does a good job of incorporating them into its Metroidvania-style progression structure. If you find yourself stuck in a level but discover a new power, it doesn’t hurt to go back to earlier levels and see what previously inaccessible locations and goodies you can find with them. Even environmental puzzles integrate them in smart ways, like how the pistol’s bullets can be shot through gaps too small for Shantae herself, in order to hit switches and open up new pathways.
Besides the graphical upgrade mentioned above, the game has a catchy soundtrack, good use of the handheld’s 3D capabilities as far as showing both multiple planes in the backgrounds and foregrounds, and a little more voice work than before, as Shantae now has fully spoken lines both for key plot points and random quips that occasionally pop up in battle. The effort WayForward clearly put into making the game look and sound appealing shows itself very well.
If there are any downsides to Pirate’s Curse, I will say that gamers looking for a huge challenge may be disappointed, as the ability to collect and buy various items that can restore health and boost Shantae’s strength and defense make battles less difficult than they would normally be. Also, a minor but unexpected gripe I ended up having is the occasional bit of pandering fanservice, like unique character portraits showing random bit players stripping into swimwear and some character sprites that had some unnecessary jiggling going on.
Despite those relatively minor problems, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a ton of fun. It does a good job of incorporating enough new features to feel fresh while still retaining what worked in the first two games. It also fixes some of its predecessors’ flaws, like the amount of backtracking.
Overall, I’d say that for anyone who enjoyed the first Shantae or Risky’s Revenge, this one’s a no-brainer. Newcomers should also give it a chance and support WayForward’s continued efforts. They won’t be disappointed.
This review is based on the 3DS version, which we were provided with.