Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Game Review: Time Crisis: Project Titan


Time Crisis: Project Titan
  • Publisher: Namco
  • Developer: Flying Tiger Development
  • Release: PlayStation, 20 June 2001
  • Genre: 3D Action (Rail Shooter)
  • Players: 1
  • Save: Memory Card, 1 Block
A lot had changed in the Time Crisis franchise between the release of the first game and the Summer of 2001, the general release date of our current subject.  In the arcades, the sequel Time Crisis II made multiple long-lasting changes to the series formula, mostly for the better, and the spin-off Crisis Zone shook things up in its own direction as well.  But neither of these games were given home ports in a timely fashion.  Maybe Namco was just waiting for something better than the PlayStation to run them on, as both games were eventually ported to the PlayStation 2, another development in that aforementioned time frame.  But before those games came to be, Namco and third-party developer Flying Tiger gave PSone owners one more run with the gun, with the console-only sequel Time Crisis: Project Titan.


The story fails to live up to its potential.
Project Titan once again stars Richard Miller, the leather-jacket-clad one-man-army from the first game.  This time around, he has been framed for the assassination of the president of Caruba, a fictional Caribbean island, and has 48 hours to clear his name.  You won't be able to get a handle on the stakes outside of the opening cutscene, however.  Without wishing to spoil, the game has a nasty habit of discarding plot points at the end of each of its four acts, as if this inanimate work of software had somehow come down with a case of ADD.  With wishing to spoil, however, the real assassin (who looks nothing like Miller, by the way) pops up for the boss fight in act 2 and is abruptly killed in the following cutscene, at the end of act 3 we learn the president of not-Aruba was alive all along, and the fourth and final act deals with a titanium-enhanced army led by -- of course, -- Wild Dog, which is plonked upon us with virtually no foreshadowing.

Oh, and the first act takes place on a yacht owned by Kantaris, the villainess arms dealer from the first game's second story, but it neither resolves anything from that past plot, nor does it advance the current plot in any way.  It's just a total waste of a level which could have been better served showing Richard on the run from the not-Cuban authorities, for example.  And no, getting to see Kantaris's low-polygon body in a bikini top does not help matters.  While I'm digressing on the subject of graphics, Project Titan attempts a more detailed look than the first game, and it works for the most part.  One of its nicer touches is that enemies in each of the four acts sport their own sets of costumes, each still retaining the series' trademark colour-coding by rank.

So if the story's a giant waste of time, does the gameplay manage any of the heavy lifting?  Project Titan revives the rules set by the first game, meaning that you have to keep your time limit up lest you suffer death by the clock, and you have to guess when enemies will land direct hits lest you suffer death by loss of hitpoints.  There is a new mechanic added from the original game, where if you can land a combo of 30 hits on enemies without missing, you'll earn an extra life.  It's hard enough to get so that it doesn't break the game by offering you too many lives, but considering that none of the other Time Crisis games offer any methods of restoring player-character life, it's better than nothing.  Another change occurs in the boss fights, where you can switch to different cover positions while hiding.  Mostly, this is used to follow the boss as he, or it, moves from place to place.  Given its limited implementation, this isn't much more than a quick gimmick, although variations on this system were eventually incorporated into later games, namely Time Crisis 4 (Arcade/PlayStation 3, 2005) and 5 (Arcade, 2015).
In boss fights, you have to follow your targets
by switching cover positions.
Project Titan once again supports the GunCon light-gun controller, and once again offers the same degree of button customisation.  Regular controllers are also supported, and oddly enough, it is here that Project Titan offers its greatest improvement.  First of all, it supports the analog sticks on DualShock and other controllers.  But more importantly, there is a new lock-on mechanic where if you move your cursor close to an enemy, it will automatically snap to him.  It can even follow arms, legs, heads, and other body parts as the targeted character moves around.  This system isn't so overpowered that it makes the game feel like it's on autopilot, but it gives anyone the speed to come within shouting distance of the default record times.  Yet it was never implemented into any of the other Time Crisis home ports, and that's a real shame.

The story campaign in Project Titan lasts longer than in the original, adding an extra fourth act on top of the usual three (ironically, you have fewer continues to finish the game with than before), but unlike the home version of Time Crisis, there's no additional campaign to pad out the first-play length.  With that in mind, the game ends up as a niche title for only a certain kind of Time Crisis fan, namely the kind who seeks out more of the challenge of the original.  Anyone weaned on the newer, friendlier entries will get turned off by its tougher conventions, not to mention the relative lack of value.  If you are interested in the unforgiving early years of this franchise, I'd recommend you start out with the original Time Crisis home port first.  But when you're ready to move on, you wouldn't do too wrongly to make your attack on Titan.

(Lame joke is lame.)

Positives:
+ Retains the challenge of the original.
+ Lock-on system makes the game more playable for controller users.
+ A more detailed graphical style.
Negatives:
- Lousy story, with many dropped plot points.
- Awkward voice acting to match.
- Failed to implement modern conveniences from Time Crisis II.
- Multi-cover system works, but is limited to boss fights.
The Call: 60% (C-)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Game Review: Time Crisis

Time Crisis
  • Publisher: Namco
  • Developer: Namco
  • Release:
    • Arcade: 1995
    • PlayStation: 31 October 1997
  • Genre: 3D Action (Light-gun Shooter)
  • Players: 1
  • Save: Memory Card (1 Block)
Once upon a time, arcade light-gun games followed a strict formula.  Shoot the bad guys, don't shoot the innocent bystanders, and shoot outside the screen to reload.  I've covered a few of those kinds of games already.  But in 1995, one company added a new dimension to the formula.  That company was Namco.  That game was Time Crisis.  And that new dimension was a foot pedal added to the machine, with which the player could hide from enemy fire.  Over the past twenty years since the original's release, the Time Crisis series has been a mainstay in arcades, with a fifth entry (not including spin-offs) recently having been rolled out as of this article.  The series has also carved out a niche for home console gamers, as the premier light-gun game series on the PlayStation family.  So, the question I have to end my introductory paragraph with is, does the first game still hold up?

In this game's story, you are Richard Miller, a leather-jacket-clad operative from the spy agency VSSE, and your mission is to rescue the princess of Sercia from the villainous duopoly of deposed prince Sherudo Garo and mercenary Wild Dog.  Oh, and some ninja with a claw who serves as the first act's boss.  Okay, the story's not that important; it's basically the save-the-princess template updated for the pre-21st century.  But Time Crisis has other selling points to fall back upon anyway.  The arcade machine uses a foot pedal, which you hold down to advance and release to hide behind cover.  You can't just turtle your way through the game, though, since you can't shoot enemies unless you're out of cover.  Also, the game runs on a timer, which is extended by clearing each scene of action, and if either the timer or your stock of lives run out, the game is over.  Upon starting a game, you can also choose an alternate time-attack mode, which limits you to one of the three acts but also gives you infinite lives, which is a suitable choice for beginner players.
In addition to enemy fire,
you have to duck to avoid obstacles.

Time Crisis is not a game for beginners, however, especially if you're used to later, more forgiving games in the series.  Only a few of the enemies' shots will land a direct hit if you don't duck out of the way, but if there is a tell for the hurt-shots, it's very hard to... tell.  Maybe the damaging bullets are coloured red, I don't know.  A rule of thumb is to pay attention to the enemies' uniforms.  The red-clad enemies will almost always fire a hurt-shot when they appear, and thrown weapons (grenades, knives, etc.) will always hit unless you hide or, if you're really good, shoot them out of the air.  Furthermore, on occasions you must duck to avoid larger obstacles, such as cranes, crates, and cars, which would knock you about otherwise.  Fortunately, these obstructions are accompanied by an on-screen warning.  Oh, and be on the lookout for the guys in golden uniforms.  They don't fight back, and disappear if you let them go, but they're good for a few extra seconds of time, which in this game is very valuable.

The PlayStation version instead uses a special light-gun controller, the GunCon, with two buttons which work the same way.  These controls may be customised to the extent possible; not only can you switch which button hides and which pauses the game, but you can even control whether you hide by holding or releasing the button.  You can even use a second controller, preferably a dance pad or the pedal from a steering wheel, as the pedal if you absolutely have to emulate the full arcade experience.  The GunCon itself, however, is a bit more complicated to set up.  In addition to plugging the controller plug into one of the front ports on your PlayStation, there's a second cable which you have to plug in between the video cable and the TV/VCR/etc it's plugged in to.  And then you have to calibrate the gun sights every time you boot up the game.  However, you'll have an even worse time of it if you're using a regular controller.  This game pre-dates the DualShock controller, so analog stick controls are not supported, leaving you with the relative imprecision of the PlayStation D-Pad to move your cursor about.
The Special story mode in the home version offers
branching paths based on your performance.
On the other hand, the PlayStation version offers its own benefits, apart from the obvious one of no longer needing to hunt down an arcade which still has the first game in operation.  This version includes a second story mode on top of the arcade version.  This new story takes place in a hotel run by an arms-dealing villainess named Kantaris.  (Honestly, there's so little character development to be had that, I don't know why I bother giving you everyone's names.)  What's novel about this mode is that the level progression branches off at multiple points, subtly leading you to one area or another based on your performance.  For example, if you clear out a room in the first area before the elevator doors close, you'll go down one path, or down another path if you can't make it in time.  It's a tall order to try and get all four of the possible endings, given the difficulty of acheiving these unique objectives on top of the base difficulty of the game itself.  Honestly, it's a good thing this extra mode was included, because the arcade mode only lasts about fifteen minutes (not including the time lost from re-playing sections of the game after continuing, which is pretty much inevitable), which is short even for the series' already short standard.

The graphical style employed in Time Crisis is typical of the PlayStation era, with low-polygon models and a a hybrid of realism and anime art, allowing for expressive (if unchanging) faces without looking too outlandish.  The enemy character models come with multiple coloured uniforms which tell you, at a glance, what role they serve in their futile quest to stop you, such as the aforementioned accurate red-shirts (pretty much the opposite of you'd expect from Star Trek).  Whilst there are no bonuses for hitting the head or other weak points, the enemies' death animations do react to where you hit them, such as twirling to the ground when you shoot them in the leg, or half-flipping backwards with a headshot.  The music is forgettable and most of the line-reads in the performance are awkward at best, but the gunshot sound effects are impactful and change from room to room, simulating the changing acoustics, and the announcer who tells you "Wait", "Action!", and "Danger!" is just present enough to tell you what you need to know, but not too present as to be annoying.

The impression given by the original Time Crisis was one of trying to find its bearings.  It employs on mechanics which were changed and/or abandoned for subsequent entries, and runs the risk of either alienating or intriguing series fans weaned on later entries.  It's got that old-school NES thing going on, where it compensates for having a shorter duration by making it really tough to beat.  If that's your thing, great.  If not, at least it makes beating this game all the more rewarding.

Positives:
+ The cover-pedal mechanic puts a fresh spin on the genre.
+ The game's rules offer more challenge than other entries in the series.
+ The bonus campaign in the home version.
+ Little touches like death animations and gun sound effects.
Negatives:
- The difficulty level is the most unforgiving in the series.
- Limited ease of control if you're not using a GunCon.
- Silly voice-acting and bland story.
The Call: 70% (C+)

Monday, September 14, 2015

Music Review: Time of Our Lives vs. GDFR

"Time of Our Lives"
  • Artist: Pitbull & Ne-Yo
  • Album: Globalization (Pitbull) / Non-Fiction (Ne-Yo)
  • Genre: Hip-Hop/Rap, Dance
  • Label: RCA (Sony)
  • Release: 17 November 2014
  • Writers: Armando C. PĂ©rez, Lukasz Gottwald, Henry Walter, Robin Weisse, Shaffer Smith, Vinay Rao, Stephan Taft, Michael "Freakin" Everett
  • Producer: Dr. Luke, Cirkut, Lifted, Michael "Freakin" Everett (melody)
"G.D.F.R"
  • Artist: Flo Rida feat. Sage the Gemini and Lookas
  • Album: My House
  • Genre: Hip-Hop/Rap
  • Label: Atlantic (Warner)
  • Release: 21 October 2014
  • Writers: Tramar Dillard, Dominic Woods, Lucas Rego, Mike Caren, Andrew Cedar, Charles W. Miller, Gerald Goldstein, Harold Brown, Howard E. Scott, Justin Frank, Lee Oskar, Leroy L. Jordan, Morris Dickerson, Sylvester Allen
  • Producers: DJ Frank E, Andrew Cedar, Lookas, Miles Beard


2015 has been a good year for Summer songs.  Heck, one of them even had the word "summer" in the title, just to drive the point home.  But some of those songs were holdovers from earlier in the year which happened to have a little more staying power.  For the purposes of this article, I speak of "Time of Our Lives" by Pitbull, and "G.D.F.R" by Flo Rida.  Now, previously on the SDP, I did another joint review of both a Pitbull song and a Flo Rida song.  Since that last review, Pitbull has become more tolerable and Flo Rida hadn't done much of anything.  And now that they've had concurrent hits once again, I thought I'd challenge them to a second round, and see what's changed.


I'll start with Pitbull's song, since he's the guy who draws in all the readers to this blog, apparently.  We begin with the chorus, sung by Ne-Yo.
I knew my rent was gonna be late about a week ago
I worked my ass off, but I still can't pay it though
But I got just enough, to get off in this club
Have me a good time, before my time is up
Well this was unexpected.  Our protagonist is not the usual money-spouting partying machine, but is on the verge of defaulting on his financial obligations.  And sure, if you are struggling to make ends meet financially, the last thing you want to do is waste what little scratch you've managed to save up.  But our protagonist has already come to terms with his destiny of not affording the month's rent, so he's going to make the most of his situation.  Truly, this hook brings across the point that "Give Me Everything" or "Feel This Moment" failed to.

Surprisingly, this song does not use any samples, but non-specifically evokes the house music of the late '90s / early 2000s, such as Daft Punk's Discovery album.  And while I haven't minded Pitbull's (producers') use of sampling in the past, regardless, this approach results in a slick groove.  And having such relatively deep lyrics only sweetens the deal.  Oh, buy you know how it is, the actual verses are just going to be the same partying and drinking routine.  Might as well get this over with.
This is the last twenty dollars I got
But I'mma have a good time ballin' tonight
Tell the bartender, line up some shots
Because I'm gonna get loo-oo-oose tonight
...Eh?  Pitbull actually carried the theme from the chorus into his verses?  What a shocking development!  Please, do go on!
She a freaky girl and I'm a freaky man
She on the rebound, broke up with her ex
And I'm like Rodman, ready on deck
And what's this now?  Pitbull's hitting on a girl who isn't already in a relationship?  What alternate universe have I stumbled upon where the cliches of mainstream rap do not apply?  Because I'm parking myself down there and not leaving!  Okay, so he does get to those cliches anyway, in pretty much all of the lyrics I haven't bothered to showcase for you readers.  But it works this time around, because for once we have some context in which all his party behaviour takes place.  And the clincher, the one moment which cements this song with a good impression, is the last couple of lines Pitbull adds to the end of the middle eight:
This for everybody going through tough times
Believe me, been there, done that
But everyday above ground is a great day, remember that
An inspirational statement encouraging people to stay positive?  From Mr. Worldwide himself!?  I guess anything's possible with the new and improved Pitbull.  Now with 10% less Voli!  Seriously, while the music video had a shot of that particular product placement, but the song itself is completely devoid of brand naming.  And speaking of the music video, even it takes on the whole "party in the face of adversity" theme, depicting the future Mr. Worldwide holding a house party to raise rent money.  All of this goes to show: if you can only write about one thing, then at least come up with a new context to wrap around that thing, and you too can become a master storyteller.


So that was Pitbull, and I was pleasantly surprised by how good that was.  I guess it's time to move on to the Flo Rida song, though.  It's called "G.D.F.R.", as in "Going down for real", as in the chorus sung by Sage the Gemini:
I know what you came here to see
If you're a freak, then you're coming home with me
And I know what you came here to do
Now bust it open let me see you get low
It's going down for real [repeat x1]
Nothing special.  Oh, except for the sample they used in-between the titular lines.  That horn riff comes from the outro to "Low Rider", the 1975 funk-rock hit by the band War.  Well, actually, the sample itself is from a remix of the song done by a DJ called Lookas, which explains his featuring credit.  Flo Rida's done this sort of thing before, sampling a song which sampled another song, in hits like "Good Feeling" and "I Cry".  And believe it or not, I approve.  For one, Avicii got his mainstream breakthrough after being "featured" in "Good Feeling".  And two, they don't use the more familiar parts of the source material, so the sample doesn't distract you with memories of the song it was taken from.  So aesthetically, "G.D.F.R." has pleasantly surprised me, but will the lyrics follow suit?
Your girl just kissed a girl
I do bi (chicks)
Okay, I get the idea that girl-on-girl lovin' is hot.  There's even a Trope for that.  But how come someone said the word "chicks" in a different, toned-down voice?  It's almost like one of those unfinished-simile "hashtag rap" dealies, which I had hoped were dead by now.
Shake for a sheikh
I'm throwing these Emirates in the sky
I see we're experimenting with a Middle Eastern theme with the lyrics.  Not a bad choice; I appreciate any attempt to inject some colour into msinstream rap songs, especially local colour.  And that neck of the woods has some of the richest cities in the world, so you and your baller image would fit right in.  Everyone's a winner!

...Wait a minute, so in that last line when you said "I do bi", you wanted it to sound like "I Dubai", as in the city in the United Arab Emirates?  I do, indeed, see what you did there, and I approve.  Heck, even the "Low Rider" sample, as used in "G.D.F.R.", could pass for middle-eastern music if you stretch your imagination.  Although I'm not sure what you mean by "throwing these Emirates in the sky".  I know that Emirates is the name of an airline from the UAE, but does that mean you took over that company?  Not the last I checked.  Or do you physically launch their planes into the air?  Kinda outside the realm of possibility there, too.
Spending this Assal-ama-laykum
Peace to M.O.N.E.Y
At least we're keeping the theme going, but now it's starting to make less sense.  How are you supposed to spend Arabic greetings as currency?  And has money become such an integral part of your life that now you have to wish peace upon it like it were some religious figure?  (That last part is not outside the realm of possibility for Flo Rida.)
I love my beaches, south beaches
Surfboard and high tide
That's it, huh?  Not even halfway through the verse, and you've already given up on that theme you had going?  I would be disappointed in you, Flo, but I'd have had to have actual expectations in order to say that.  Anything else you'd like to bring up, Flo?  Let me just skim through the rest of this verse for you...  Birthday cakes...  Bugattis...  Anna Kournikovas...?  Yeah, I think we're done here.  Let's move on to the other guy.
And they already know me
Probably not; let me bring you up to speed.  Gemini, and his name is Sage.  Sage the Gemini.  He tried to have a hit a couple of years ago with something called "Gas Pedal", and it sucked.  I can best describe his style of performance as a "monotone baritone".
It's going down further than femursGirls get wetter than Katrina
I'd just like to state for the record that I'm getting over the whole casual references Hurricane Katrina / New Orleans thing.  For one, that was ten years ago, and I don't even personally know anybody who was affected by that disaster.  I know I got mad when Pitbull used it, but that was a different time, a time when "Give Me Everything" was number 1 and I failed to see any potential he could have had up to his sleeve.  Besides, it turns out there have been quite a few of these lines used by many other rappers over the years.  So as long as no one tries something like "Blowing up like Fukushima", I think I can sleep easily for once.
Double entendre, double entendre
Uh-oh, thanks for warning us about the double entendre coming up!  Also, can I address the staccato delivery he used on this line?  Because it's annoying.  It's been annoying for a few years now, and it's not likely to become un-annoying anytime soon.  So anyway, what's this double entendre you've got cooked up for us?
While you're hating I get money
Then I double up tonkers
...I don't get it; where's the double entendre?  Was it supposed to be "double up tonkers"?  I have no idea what that even means, and I certainly can't think of the second meaning required to qualify that phrase as a double entendre.  Were you, by any chance, referring to the lines beforehand?
Put your hands up
It's a stick up, no more makeup
Get that ass on the floor
Ladies put your lipstick up
...Nope, I've got nothing.  I think we're done here.  I would be lying if I said "G.D.F.R." weren't catchy, because way the "Low Rider" sample was used gives it more staying power than most other rap songs.  But strip away the beat and it's just like any other of Flo Rida's songs.


"Time of Our Lives"
Positives:
+ Slick, non-sampled beat.
+ The chorus sets up a theme and the verses actually follow it.
Negatives:
- Still deals with partying, although we finally have proper context.
The Call: 5 out of 5 (A)
"G.D.F.R"
Positives:
+ Creative sampling.
+ Brief attempts at a lyrical theme.
Negatives:
- Generic lyrics -- that is, when they aren't just awkward.
The Call: 3 out of 5 (C)

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Game Review: Shantae and the Pirate's Curse


Shantae and the Pirate's Curse
  • Publisher: WayForward
  • Developer: WayForward / Inti Creates
  • Release:
    • Nintendo 3DS: 23 October 2014
    • Wii U: 25 December 2014
    • PC: 23 April 2015
  • Genre: 2D Action
  • Players: 1
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed the first two Shantae games.  So naturally, me writing a review of the latest sequel was inevitable.  If you'll recall my review of Risky's Revenge, the second game in the series, my greatest complaint was its short length.  However, I did try to give it the benefit of the doubt, assuming that WayForward had so much trouble trying to find a publisher after the commercial failure of the first game.  Well, at the risk of spoiling this review, I'm pleased to report this is no longer the case for the newest entry, Shantae and the Pirate's Curse.  Maybe they've gotten used to this whole digital-distribution thing now, so that they don't have to work their budgets around what a publisher will or won't give them.  Or maybe it's because they collaborated on this game with Inti Creates, a Japanese development team famous for, among other things, the Mega Man Zero series, Azure Striker Gunvolt, and the upcoming Mighty No.9 (with Comcept).  They even made a port for the Wii U, thus beating the crowdfunded Half-Genie Hero to become the series' first console game, later followed by a PC port, just like Risky's Revenge.  So does this new influx of resources, man-hours, and/or willpower translate to a better game?


New equipment like the Pirate Hat elevate
the gameplay experience, pardon the pun.
(3DS version.)
When a brand-new evil entity known as the Pirate Master threatens the safety of Sequin Land, our heroine, the half-genie Shantae, and her nemesis, the lady pirate Risky Boots, must form an uneasy alliance to take him down.  Shantae's trademarked dance-powered animal transformations are unavailable this time around, due to a run-in with the plot last time around.  So in lieu of those, progress is controlled by the acquiring of various pirate paraphernelia.  There's a pistol to shoot switches and deal light damage, a scimitar to break blocks underfoot, a giant hat to glide with while jumping, and so on.  And unlike the aforementioned transformations, which require you to stop and enter some form of dance mode to activate, each of these new moves has their own button input or inputs.  It's like the developers said, "We've got six buttons to work with on this 3DS thing, and by gum, we're going to use them!"

Control ergonomics aside, this decision was a good one in the interest of making the gameplay feel fresh again.  They don't offer the same abilities as the animal transformations from the first two games, but nonetheless offer new possibilities for exploring the game worlds.  But it's not all different: the series' traditional attack items such as Fire Balls, Pike Balls, and Storm Puffs are back again.  Whereas attack items in Risky's Revenge were fueled by a magic meter, Pirate's Curse switches them back to being consumables.  However, they can be dropped by defeated enemies as well as purchased from the shop, so things even out on that front.  Once again, Heart Squids may be collected to extend Shantae's maximum health, although instead of instantly taking effect as you would expect to see in most video games, you have to bring them to the "squidsmith" in Scuttle Town, who will smash them four at a time to form new heart containers.  Sadistic, yes, but it also clues you in to the level of comedy you'll be dealing with in Pirate's Curse.

Instead of the singular overworld map employed in the first two Shantaes, and indeed most every Metroidvania-type game, the world of Pirate's Curse is laid out across six or so islands, one of them being the main town and the others each containing one of the games dungeon levels, and connected by a hub menu.  This was also a great decision, as it cuts down on travel time quite a bit.  Besides, Dust: An Elysian Tail also did this sort of thing, and that was one of the few video games I gave a perfect score to!  There were still a few fetch quests which had me lost the first time around, and some of the pre-dungeon events drug on just long enough to be not fun.  For example, a mid-game episode on Tan Line Island forces you into a stealth section.  Still, my first play-through clocked in at about 8 hours, and if I may say so, it was 8 hours well-spent.  Beating the game once unlocks the Pirate Mode, where you get all the pirate acccessories from the start of the game.  If nothing else, it lets us laypeople experiment with speed-running through the game.
The character portraits look neat in stereoscopic 3D.
...Take my word for it. (Wii U version.)
The pseudo-16-bit art style of Risky's Revenge has gone largely unchanged for Pirate's Curse, although I suppose it's neat to see more enemies from the first game returning with a visual upgrade.  For a game whose graphics engine relies mainly on 2D sprites, the few times that stereoscopic 3D effects in (the 3DS version of) Pirate's Curse are used are all the more notable, especially on the character portraits during dialogue scenes.  Obviously this doesn't apply to the Wii U and PC ports, where said portraits were re-drawn to take advantage of the higher screen resolutions, but the other art assets were not.  WayForward has done HD graphics before, even on games ported from smaller-screened platforms, so this was a curious oversight.  I don't know, maybe they're saving all that work for Half-Genie Hero.  The soundtrack, once again composed by Jake Kaufman, is also partly recycled from the last game, but it was cool then and is still cool now.  Once again it takes melodies from the first game, along with new ones, and jacking them up with Middle-Eastern and other influences.  Pirate's Curse is also the first Shantae game to introduce voice acting, tastefully limited to a few sound bites in gameplay and cutscenes.  In case you're interested, the leading lady is played by Christina "Vee" Valenzuela, also known for playing Cerebella in Skullgirls, and Sailor Mars from the new Sailor Moon dub.

Still, I must stress that gameplay, not graphics, is nine-tenths of the law.  Apart from the new abilities and streamlined world layout, I like how the little damage point numbers that pop up like from a classic RPG, or the halfway-decent map screen, including maps for dungeons, a glaring omission in the last game.  It's the little details like those which take the experience over the top, although there are other details I wish had been cleaned up.  I wish that I could leave notes on the maps when I find a place to come back to later (maybe I've been spoiled by The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds).  It would certainly help me keep track of the numerous, and often unintuitive, trading-game fetch quests needed to progress through the game, as it's easy to ignore places you'll need to put things later on.  Then there's the smaller stuff, like how the sub-menu automatically switches pages when I find a key item or something.  But smaller stuff aside, Pirate's Curse ranks up there with sequels such as The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Mega Man Legends 2, or Just Cause 2, which don't reinvent too much, but fine-tune the experiences of their predecessor whilst offering far more of it.  Pirate's Curse is clearly the best game in the Shantae series thus far, offering a challengine hurdle for Half-Genie Hero to clear.  But whether or not it does, the SDP and I will be all over that like black on a Tinkerbat.

(...Don't look at me like that.  Risky Boots's minions aren't Arfrican, they're literally black-skinned monster thingies.)

Positives:
+ More content than the first two games (combined).
+ The pirate tools offer up new abilities for exploration.
+ Tasteful introduction of voice acting.
+ Retains the series' sense of humour.
Negatives:
- Some of the fetch quests can leave you wandering aimlessly to solve them.
- A few sections of the game appear to drag on, if only for being less fun than the rest of the game.
- The lack of upscaled graphics in the Wii U and PC ports seem like a missed opportunity.

Controls: 5 pirate tools out of 5
Design: 4 pirate tools out of 5
Graphics: 5 pirate tools out of 5
Audio: 5 pirate tools out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)