Thursday, August 29, 2013

Shantae: Risky's Revenge (Nintendo DSiWare) Review


It's been five years since Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, the last proper "Metroidvania" adventure, came out and boy have I missed my Metroidvania. A lot. I miss my big goofy weapons, my ridiculous magic spells, my melodramatic Dracula stories, wickedly cool heroes and heroines like Alucard, Nathan Graves, Soma Cruz, and Shanoa, giant, crazy enemies and bosses, beautiful 2D art, fantastic soundtracks, and most of all, I miss the item/ability-based exploration of labyrinthine environments. With Konami recently embracing an entirely new Castlevania universe and delivering a high fantasy, God of War-esque, 3D action experience much removed from the humble 2D Metroidvania formula with its Lords of Shadow series, and also with Nintendo flat-out ignoring its brilliant Metroid series since Other M came out and underwhelmed most of us with its poorly-written, cutscene-bloated, linear adventure, it doesn't look like my new Metroidvania is anywhere on the horizon.

Luckily, Shantae: Risky's Revenge has come along to fill this gaping hole in my gaming life...well, maybe not fill it completely, but at least gave it an oh-so-tasty treat to savor.

After learning that the original Shantae had been released for the 3DS Virtual Console (I've wanted to play these games for a long time, but the Shantae Game Boy Color cart is ridiculously pricey due its rarity), I purchased and downloaded both Shantae and its DSiWare-exclusive (originally) sequel. After finishing the original, I couldn't wait and I immediately booted up the sequel. I played Risky's Revenge all the way through to the end of the first labyrinth, and spent the next several days relishing every moment of this gem.

Risky's back!

Risky's Revenge essentially improves on every little nitpick I had with the original Shantae while also upgrading the visuals and music and everything else the way a sequel that came out eight years later should. After gaining control of Shantae at the beginning of the game, I was immediately struck by just how much better the game feels to play. Perhaps my biggest gripe with the first game, that Shantae's hair whip, her main method of attack, had too short a range and felt handicapped as a result, has been vastly improved. Shantae's hair now has the range of attack that I feel her long, purple ponytail should and it's amazing how this one little change makes RR so much more fun to play than the original. Not only has the range improved, but Shantae can now upgrade her hair so whipping is faster and more efficient. It now feels smooth and satisfying to attack enemies and those enemies don't take five+ hits to kill anymore, so combat is never tedious or out of Shantae's control. Challenge doesn't come from frequent cheap hits this time but from learning how each monster attacks and responding accordingly.

Hair-whipping feels so much better in RR

RR also ditches the cumbersome additional attack skills that could be bought from a shop in the original and replaces the numerous, frivolous consumable subweapons with three permanent magic attacks that Shantae can buy and upgrade throughout the game. Instead of having a limited number of uses, how many times Shantae can shoot fireballs or how long a protective barrier stays active are now determined by a magic meter. An additional upgrade can be bought that makes this meter slowly auto-refill over time. Magic potions and health potions can also be bought to refill magic and life, respectively. What's more, these potions are much more affordable than in the first game.


Shantae can master several magical skills now

Lives have also been done away with in favor of more frequent save points and less cheap deaths due to spikes and bottomless pits, which no longer kill Shantae instantly. All of these tweaks combine to make a much more enjoyable play experience. I died a lot less in Risky's Revenge, but a lot of my deaths in the original felt cheap and frustrating, so I don't really mind the reduced difficulty, which allows me to focus on what I really enjoy about these kinds of games, namely exploring. Besides, the game never felt too easy, and your health will rapidly deplete due to the swarms of monsters that hit hard in this game, so you will die if you don't stock up on potions and watch your hearts carefully. The difficulty just felt more fair this time around.

Risky's Revenge is more than just a few tweaks though; it also feels like a truly enhanced experience, like the sort of leap games saw from their NES iterations to their SNES ones. For starters, RR is a beautiful game with gorgeous 2D art featuring lushly painted backgrounds, crisply animated sprites, and engrossing world design. The fields of Sequin Land are full of vegetation in the foreground and background and dotted with pumpkins and lilacs. The forest is misty and densely packed with flora and the seaside is sun-splashed and colorful. All of the charming characters from the first game return and we also get to meet some new ones. Risky Boots is back to terrorize Shantae again of course (hilariously first appearing riding a giant anchor nonsensically suspended through a building's ceiling) and friends like Sky and Bolo (who seems much more reserved this time) are back. We also get to finally meet the mischievous zombie-girl Rottytops' two brothers, as well as the various quirky Barons, and also my personal favorite side-character, Barracuda Joe. All of these characters are also now accompanied by a large, detailed portrait of themselves whenever they speak.

This guy makes me smile
 
Shantae is also full of anonymous NPCs with funny, off-beat things to say. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the the game was returning to Scuttle Town and hearing what its wacky NPCs had to say. Something that bugs me in a lot of RPGs and adventure games is when I keep talking to the same NPCs at different points in a game to hear what they have to say and they just keep repeating the same dialogue over and over. I appreciated the fact that throughout the game, the residents of Scuttle Town always had something new and funny to say after I completed a major story event, like a dungeon. One little girl simply says "I'm four!" when you talk to her and then there's a guy who comments on how he wanders around on the roof of the town shop all day and also a guard who is always standing in the same place who talks about how he enjoys standing and looking. There are just so many clever little gags if the player takes the time to talk to the NPCs. A fisherman says something about "that dopey kid" tossing an interesting item he caught back into the ocean. If you chat to a nearby kid, he hilariously and illogically blurts out: "I'm a dopey kid!" I just burst out laughing at this. Both the main story and the world at large are littered with funny moments like this.

In addition to the beautiful, artistic visuals in RR, the music has also gotten a boost. I liked the music in the original Shantae and respect the originality and quality of that game's soundtrack, but Jake Kaufman really outdid himself in Risky's Revenge. The soundtrack combines wonderful remixes and excellent new tracks to form a spectacular OST and one of the better ones I've heard in a while. There isn't a bad piece in the entire game and every song is either perfectly atmosphericappropriately catchy, or just upbeat and a joy to listen to.


Hanging out with Rotty

I compared the original Shantae to Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, but Risky's Revenge ditches that formula (as neat as I still think it is if done well) and feels much closer in structure to a Metroidvania game. The overworld is one giant map and is set up like one big labyrinth to explore (although not quite as intricate as in Metroid and Castlevania games). The action is all in 2D, but the game plays with the idea of multiple, layered 2D planes that Shantae can travel between. For example, in the forest area, you can see faded objects in the background and enemies walking around. By utilizing certain "jump pads", Shantae can leap into the background and explore a new plane. Shantae travels in this way through the multiple planes of the foreground and background. It's a really interesting idea that brings Donkey Kong Country Returns (which also plays with the idea of traveling between the foreground and background) to mind. This plane-switching mechanic is sadly underutilized in RR, but hopefully the planned 3DS sequel returns to the idea, as it would be a perfect fit for the 3DS's unique 3D depth capabilities.

The world map is a little confusing to take in at first

The landscape of Sequin Land is dotted with hidden caves, secret discoveries, and interesting people to talk to. There are few things more satisfying in adventure games for me than acquiring a cool new ability and then retracing my steps and discovering new places that this new ability allows me to reach. This aspect is a staple of Metroidvania and Zelda games, and part of why I adore them so much. For example, after acquiring the ability to turn into an elephant (like in the first game), I was dying to re-explore the forest to smash open all those mysterious rocks and blockades and see what they were hiding.

Like in the original, Shantae has the ability to use her magic belly-dancing to transform into different creatures and gain new abilities. I was a little disappointed, however, that the actual act of dancing has been greatly downplayed in Risky's Revenge. In the original, dancing required multiple button inputs and had six unique dance animations. This process has been greatly streamlined in RR. Now, Shantae will start dancing if the player merely holds down a single button, and unfortunately her dances are not accompanied by any music or little ditties for each move like in the first game. Shantae automatically cycles through three dance moves and depending on which move the player releases the button on, she will transform into one of the three creatures that are unlocked at different points in the game. I appreciate the fact that transforming is much quicker and easier and it makes exploring and using the multiple forms a much faster and more streamlined process, but the detailed dance system was one of my favorite aspects of the original, so it's definitely missed here.

Shantae discovering a secret cave within another cave!

So with beautiful art, wonderful music, improved gameplay, a well-designed world to explore and puzzle-filled labyrinths to solve, is Risky's Revenge a perfect sequel? Well, unfortunately no. RR is dripping with quality but I have one big issue with the game...it's just too short. I'm not usually one to complain about a game's length, and I favor a short, focused experience in place of a long, bloated one padded out with tedious nonsense. I thought the original Shantae was a great length for what it was; it had no filler and didn't feel too short or too long. But Risky's Revenge is about half the length of the original and more importantly, it feels short. There are only two dungeons as opposed to four like in the first game, and the second dungeon is replaced by the "Battle Tower", which is essentially just an enemy rush that must be completed in a time limit. This sort of thing would be fine for an optional side-mission, but isn't a suitable replacement for a full-fledged dungeon.

The world, though well-designed, also feels a bit small and could have used maybe one or two more regions to explore, in addition to about two more labyrinths to conquer. Risky's Revenge also features what some might call padding in the form of several fairly brief, but mandatory, fetch quests. I never found these errands, such as "find a coffeemaker, coffee beans, and an egg" or "find three baby squids" to be too problematic, as I actually found these items by accident just by naturally exploring the world. These quests always follow the acquiring of a new power and basically task the player with using this new skill to explore previously unreachable areas. I naturally do this kind of thing anyway in a game like RR, so these missions never bothered me, but they feel like they're here to make short game longer.

Boss time!

Risky's Revenge was originally going to be split up into multiple episodic releases, but this idea was scrapped and the game was released as a stand-alone sequel. As part of a series of chapters, RR's length would have been acceptable (although I'm not a fan of episodic games), but as a stand-alone sequel to the original Shantae, it just feels incomplete. What's present is a very high-quality adventure, but it simply left me wanting more, especially with its semi-cliff-hanger ending. RR is a cheap, downloadable title originally only available on the DSiWare service, so this is of course the main reason for its brevity. I also wouldn't say I didn't get my money's worth because the game is a blast and from what I've heard, it's actually lengthy for a DSiWare game. I just wish that WayForward would have been able to make a full-fledged, retail sequel to the original Shantae like the game deserved.

Thankfully, I hopefully won't have to wait long for my next Shantae fix as the third game in the series, Shantae and the Pirate's Curse (note: there are spoilers for the ending of Risky's Revenge in this video), which is supposed to be twice as large as Risky's Revenge, is supposed to arrive on the 3DS eShop sometime this year. I'm a bit skeptical though because the year is almost over and there hasn't really been any news on this game outside of its initial reveal in the now extinct Nintendo Power's November issue of last year. I hope the game still shows up this year, but in the mean time, if you haven't played or heard of the Shantae games, run to 3DS eShop now (if you own the system). They can both be downloaded for under $20 (Risky's Revenge is also available on iOS) and if you enjoy Metroidvania-style games, Zelda-style games, or just quality 2D action-adventures, you own it to yourself to play these games. The Shantae series takes one of my favorite adventure game formulas and builds on it with a unique world and cast of characters and style unlike anything else, and gosh dang it, I just love it!

Shantae will return in Shantae and the Pirate's Curse!


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