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 of Pirate's Curse for the Wii U, thus beating the crowdfunded 1/2-Genie Hero to become the series' first console game, and 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?

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!"
New equipments like the Pirate Hat elevate the gameplay experience, pardon the pun. (3DS version.)
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 challenging hurdle for 1/2-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 African, they're literally black-skinned monster thingies.)

+ 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.

- 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
Sound: 5 pirate tools out of 5
Value: 4 pirate tools out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

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