Friday, December 12, 2014

Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse (3DS) Review

Playing through Shantae and Shantae: Risky’s Revenge back to back last year was a great experience and I was happy to discover a new side-scrolling adventure series that took inspiration from some of my favorite games while also being wholly unique. In short, I love those two games and was greatly anticipating Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, the third game in the series and the advertised end to the Shantae “handheld trilogy” (just the end to the story these three games have set up; don’t worry, the series isn’t over). So did it deliver? In one sense, yes: Pirate’s Curse is a polished, well-designed adventure full of the smooth gameplay, beautiful spritework, feverishly catchy music, endearing characters and charming writing the series is now known for. In another sense, however, Pirate’s Curse falls short for me in several key areas and doesn’t quite have the same spark its two predecessors have. So what is Pirate’s Curse? For me, it’s a mixed experience, but let’s start by praising what deserves praise.

Risky’s Revenge is a gorgeous 2D action game, but I think Pirate’s Curse might look even better. I’m so happy that sprite-based 2D games haven’t gone extinct and indie developers like WayForward are keeping the form alive. Shantae’s wacky, fantastical world really comes to life and now pops more than ever thanks to the stereoscopic 3D effect of the 3DS. But more impressive than the colorful, detailed environments are the varied and lively cast of characters and creatures that populate them. Character sprites are full of details and personality. If you want to see what I mean, just stop moving anywhere in the game and watch Shantae and any surrounding characters’ idle animations; it looks like everyone is constantly rocking out to Jake Kaufman’s awesome chiptune soundtrack and having one giant dance party, which is fitting for a game starring a dancer. I also love the new art-style for the game’s expressive character portraits and official artwork, which has never looked better.

Shantae and Risky team up

In keeping with the previous games, PC also features an endearing cast of lovable characters and the patented sense of charm that the series is known for. The Shantae series as a whole features some of the funniest writing in the genre and the humorous back and forth between Shantae and the likes of the Ammo Baron, Risky Boots, and several other bizarre characters had me chuckling more than a few times. I particularly like the characterization of Shantae and her nemesis, Risky, who she is now forced to team up with in order to best a greater evil. I enjoyed how their relationship grew throughout the adventure and was consistently amused by the interactions between the two of them. That said, I think more could have been done here and Risky could have had more of an active role in the quest instead of basically just being Shantae’s chauffeur (via her pirate ship), but I ultimately enjoyed their partnership and how it turns out in the end.

Besides being an aural and visual delight, it should not be understated just how good Pirate’s Curse feels to play. This game has some of the most fluid 2D platforming of any side-scrolling action game I’ve played, which is fitting for a game heavily inspired by the Metroidvania games, which also excel in this category. It’s just a joy to move through the world and seamlessly going from hopping about to hair-whipping monsters feels fast and fun. The game’s excellent movement becomes even better when you acquire more and more of the pirate gear, the game’s main item upgrades (think Zelda or Metroid). The more items Shantae acquires on her journey, such as a giant pirate hat that acts as a parachute and a pair of boots that allows her to perform a high-speed dashing maneuver, the more freely she can move through the world and the more wonderful the experience feels to play. It’s that classic Metroidvania appeal of finding new equipment and improving your character as you go, so that by the end, revisiting old areas becomes a seamless experience of stringing together jumps, attacks, and dashes as you effortlessly dance across the environment with all your new skills in tow. You’ll know what I mean the first time you do a dash, followed by a leap into the air into a parachute glide, followed up by a cannon blast in order to stay aloft as you soar over large gaps and enemies below. I do wish more of the game was designed to utilize the player’s skills in stringing all of these abilities together (instead of just a handful of late game sequences), but it’s still a blast using these items to traverse old areas when trying to gather up all of the game’s collectibles.

Click on the picture for a better view!

Pirate’s Curse also makes up for Risky’s Revenge’s relative lack of mazes to explore with plenty of dungeons to traverse this time around, even more than in the first Shantae title. In fact, Pirate’s Curse feels like a much fuller and more complete experience than Risky’s Revenge, thus improving on my only real problem with that title. Overall, the dungeons are well-designed, but they don’t really stand out too much. A few do some interesting things atmospherically, but with the exception of a memorable mini-dungeon in the desert and one other main dungeon that I loved, these labyrinths didn’t really leave a lasting impression on me. They seem to lack stand-out elements like the unique color-switching mechanic in the desert labyrinth from the first Shantae. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two series, but part of what makes the dungeons in, I don’t know, the Zelda series (I know, you’re so surprised I went there, right?) is how each one feels like a unique world in themselves, often revolving around some kind of core gimmick or theme. The dungeons here make good use of the items Shantae finds, but lack that extra pizazz that made the dungeons in a game like A Link Between Worlds so memorable. I know, I know, Pirate’s Curse is working on a much smaller budget and under much stricter conditions than a giant like the Zelda series, and what the team at WayForward accomplished here is still incredibly solid. What Pirate’s Curse’s dungeons do have is a great sense of progression and a fluid design, plus some great bosses to cap them off, including a battle with a huge dragon and another with a giant robotic caterpillar.

Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a well-designed, well-executed, enjoyable experience. It improves on the one flaw that I had with its predecessor, Risky’s Revenge, which I thought was otherwise a pretty much perfect game. Unfortunately, Pirate’s Curse missteps in some other key areas, which ultimately hold it back from being that ideal Shantae game that I wanted.

Each Shantae game has followed a somewhat different formula in regards to how it has handled its world design. The first Shantae took an approach akin to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Risky’s Revenge went for a more traditional Metroidvania route, and now Pirate’s Curse takes an approach comparable to Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, where there are several, smaller Metroidvania-style maps selectable from a “map screen” of sorts. Instead of one big, interconnected overworld, this time Shantae and Risky Boots travel to several separate islands, each with their own area maps and dungeons. This is a neat idea and I’m a big fan of the seafaring adventure trope, so I was excited to see what each new island had in store. I have two big problems here though. Firstly, I was disappointed with the layout and design of most of the outdoor areas in the game. My problem with most of the field areas in Pirate’s Curse is that they are very linear and straightforward in design, often consisting of a single, flat pathway with a few hidden areas branching off of it. There are a few more maze-like areas in the game, but I wish this had been the standard, instead of reserved for a few special areas. Actually, the design of the first island Shantae visits is more what I wanted the rest of them to be like, as it involves more branching paths and verticality instead of just a straight line. These linear paths just don’t lend themselves to much exploration or imagination. The dungeons are less linear, but I was expecting more of an intricate overworld to explore. Instead of a single large overworld containing several different regions, the different islands just end up feeling like small, disjointed areas that don’t feel fleshed-out and feel somewhat hollow as a result. Also, I miss the awesome “plane-switching” mechanic from Risky’s Revenge, where Shantae would jump from the foreground to the background and so on. Not only would this mechanic be perfectly suited to the 3DS, but it would also go a long way in giving the areas in Pirate’s Curse more depth (literally) and making them feel more rich and expansive.

My second problem with the areas in the game is that, by and large, they are all heavily based on familiar locales from past games. I was excited to finally be traversing beyond Sequin Land after exploring its environs for two games, and these islands are supposed to be mysterious new lands beyond that familiar domain, but instead each island is based on one of the regions from the first Shantae game, and at this point these environments are starting to feel a little too samey and familiar. The desert island is a prime example of this, as that’s a trope we’ve seen in every Shantae game now, and I’d rather have something new at this point. There are exceptions: even though the zombie-filled forest is familiar, it’s never looked so beautiful or given off such a sweet Castlevania vibe as it does now; Mug Bog Island, while also based on a location from the original Shantae, still has a brilliantly eerie (Metroid-influenced?) atmosphere and the Village of Lost Souls section is a notable portion of the game. There are also some later portions that feel fresh as well, but in a large way, I feel like these islands aren’t necessarily new places, but just the same Sequin Land staples, except cut up and scattered across the ocean. The island idea is nice, but overall I do miss having one connected world to explore, as I usually always prefer that to a more “level select” approach. While I think the island idea could have worked better if the areas were fresher and less linear in design, I also partly wish they’d stuck with the model from Risky’s Revenge and just expanded the world as well as updated the map to the new Metroidvania-style one in Pirate’s Curse.

Besides my issues with the way its world is designed, there’s something else about Pirate’s Curse that hold the game back for me. Put simply, the overall structure of this game is very familiar to me and quite frankly, overly formulaic. Whereas past Shantae games clearly took a lot of inspiration from the likes of Zelda, Metroid, and Castlevania, they still felt fresh with mechanics like Shantae’s belly-dancing and her animal transformations that took the place of traditional item upgrades in those other games. In Pirate’s Curse, however, Shantae has lost her magic and as a result the game follows the “Zelda/Metroidvania formula” more rigidly than ever: it’s go to a new area, find the dungeon (usually doing some kind of task or mini-dungeon in order to do so), get the dungeon item, use that item to beat the boss, backtrack to the immediately previous area and use that new item to find a “key” that unlocks the way to the dungeon in the next area, and then it’s basically rinse and repeat for the whole game. This is another case of me respecting the developers doing something new with the pirate gear items, but ultimately these items, while a lot of fun to use, detract from the uniqueness of Shantae’s identity, and all this amounts to Pirate’s Curse feeling much more like a traditional experience than ever. That said…

…That isn’t particularly a bad thing. After all, I love those kinds of games and this formula does work. Pirate’s Curse just seems a little too formulaic, or at least enough for me to really notice. The bottom line is that Pirate’s Curse is very solid and well-built, it just doesn’t feel as original or unique as its predecessors, and doesn’t do as much mechanically to feel distinct from its contemporaries. The game does what it does well, just not in such a way that really stands out to me. Whereas games like A Link Between Worlds are finally taking strides to change up the classic “Zelda formula”, Pirate’s Curse feels archaic and overly familiar. Unique mechanics in the past two Shantae games helped to circumvent this issue, and thus Pirate’s Curse feels a bit like a step backward to me.

Besides a lot of uninspired area designs and the overly formulaic structure, there’s one more aspect of Pirate’s Curse that left a bad taste in my mouth and distracted me from enjoying the adventure as much as I could have. Yeah, you know what’s coming: this game is straight male fan-service incarnate. I mean, Shantae games have always had sexualized female character designs, there’s no denying that, but Pirate’s Curse takes it a little too far, making sure that every single female character, from humans to monsters to zombie girls, has large, emphasized breasts, a sexualized physique, and a plethora of sexualized poses. While the male character designs, on the other hand, are far more varied, with men being allowed to be deformed, overweight, monstrous, handsome, cartoony, whatever. For a good example of what I’m talking about here, just compare Rottytops’ design to the designs of her two brothers, Abner and Poe, all three of whom are sapient zombies. It’s very telling that the only really “hunky” male character here is a cyclops. The straight male “fan-service” moments are around every corner here: at one point spring breakers get into their bathing suits for a pool party and the method for unlocking the path forward involves light shining off of their half-naked bodies and then there’s an entire dungeon devoted to dressing up all of the female leads in sexy metal bikinis against their will (the different explanations for each of them happening to be there are all laughably flimsy as well). The premise of this chapter is a humorous idea (a bizarre cult mistaking Shantae and co. for their “long-lost” princess when the real princess was just out getting groceries), but the clear purpose of it to objectify all the female leads is tasteless, and the final punchline of this section basically making a joke about female body image is off-putting. And if that weren’t enough, the game dresses Rottytops up in a skimpy schoolgirl outfit. It just never ends. While there are certainly a lot of funny moments in Pirate’s Curse (such as everything involving the Squid Baron; I love that guy), I feel that the humor in Risky’s Revenge was overall stronger and more consistently funny without having to rely on so many tasteless attempts to please a straight male audience. At the end of my review for the first Shantae, I wrote this: “Shantae proves that it's really not that difficult to have an action adventure video game that stars a cool, interesting female protagonist whose main power isn't her ability to grow a pair of gargantuan breasts that would break the back of any normal human female.” While I still think that Pirate’s Curse having a large cast of mostly female main characters and an endearing, powerful female protagonist is a positive thing, I’m a bit disappointed that the team at WayForward decided to make female objectification such a focus this time around.

Shantae addressing the game's developers

While I have a lot of gripes with the game, I really don’t want to understate that Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a great game that I enjoyed playing through a lot. It’s an incredibly polished and endearing 2D action game with a great soundtrack, great art, great gameplay and overall an experience that stands well with its predecessors for a fantastic trilogy that I’d highly recommend to any fan of action adventure games or just 2D sprite-based games and artwork in general. But…I have a feeling my opinion is going to be in the minority here, but Pirate’s Curse is my least favorite in the series, and I feel it’s less memorable and creative than the previous two. I just love what the previous two games did with the dancing mechanic and connected overworld and think the perfect Shantae game for me would just be expanding on Risky Revenge’s formula (which remains my favorite game in the series), adding some of the tweaks that PC made (like the better map), and making it a longer, fuller, more complete experience than Risky’s Revenge is. All this said, Pirate’s Curse is still a very solid title which retains the endearing charm and personality in its world, characters, and themes that the previous Shantae titles have (I mean, a half-genie using pirate gear to save the world? Awesome). I also respect the fact that each of the three handheld Shantae games feels unique from each other while also having the same spirit. I enjoyed the way in which Pirate’s Curse concluded the story set up in Risky’s Revenge as well and was overall satisfied with the game’s finale. Overall, it’s a great trilogy and a great series and I’m looking forward to Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, which I hope will improve on some of the qualms I have with Pirate’s Curse.

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