Oh Shantae, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
As I’ve noted before, rarely do video games make me literally smile while I’m playing, but WayForward’s Shantae series has me grinning like a durn fool. I’m besotted with these adventures, having fallen in love with their wonderful visuals, energetic soundtracks, vibrant worlds and, most of all, warm and lovable cast of characters. Particularly, these plaudits belong to Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, a game I’ve gone on record as saying is a masterclass in perfect game design. Pirate’s Curse is in my Top Ten of all-time, and the Shantae series as a whole is embedded in my heart. I can’t quit the Half-Genie Hero.
It’s with this spirit of devotion that I approach this review of WayForward’s fifth entry in the Shantae canon, Shantae and the Seven Sirens. Eschewing the typical release format, Seven Sirens arrived piecemeal on Apple Arcade, launching alongside the platform back in September 2019. The second half of Seven Sirens arrived on Apple Arcade in March of this year, with the game now finally available in its entirety on other platforms. A very curious delivery method, one which frankly does not suit an eight-hour, single-map metroidvania. Still, it is what it is. Let’s see if it has been worth the wait.
It’s time to dance into danger once again… RET-2-GO!
Shantae and the Seven Sirens (PS4 [reviewed], PC, Xbox One, Switch, Apple Arcade)
Released: September 19, 2019 (Apple Arcade), May 28, 2020 (Other platforms)
Shantae and the Seven Sirens sees the titular Half-Genie Hero and her pals leave the sanctity of Scuttle Island for a fun-filled vacation on the recently opened Arena Island, where Shantae is scheduled to perform at the “Half-Genie Festival.” Things go awry fast, however, when her five newly met genie pals vanish during the festival’s opening ceremony. Now seemingly the only guardian on the island – and well out of her jurisdiction – Shantae sets off on another hair-whipping adventure, exploring the length and breadth of this strange locale in efforts to get to the bottom of the mysterious kidnapping.
Recent Shantae titles have been a little divisive among the fanbase. This is mostly due to the very different design philosophies behind the latter games. 2014’s Pirate’s Curse used classic pixelated graphics, item-based puzzles, and a series of themed island labyrinths, leaning in on the metroidvania angle, whereas 2016’s Half-Genie Hero used modern vector sprites, stripped back the metroidvania elements, and went with far more traditional “head right and jump” platforming action.
With Seven Sirens, WayForward has experimented with blending both styles, cherry-picking the colourful cartoon aesthetic of HGH and the open exploration elements of Pirate’s Curse, infused into a single interconnected map, much like you see in titles such as Bloodstained or Hollow Knight. Unfortunately, rather than become the sum of its parts, Seven Sirens actually feels like a step backward, or at least sideways, from both of its aforementioned predecessors.
Despite efforts to offer a deeper, more exploration-themed vibe than Half-Genie Hero, Seven Sirens‘ gameplay loop is frustratingly simplistic. Shantae heads to a zone, finds a missing genie, fights a boss, then gets a new skill that allows her access to the next zone. This is essentially the layout for the entire game – no more, no less. Fans of “shakeup sequences” from previous titles – such as Run Rottytops!, the Magic Carpet Ride, the Mermaid Factory, or the Shmup Lair – will be disappointed to hear that no such set-pieces appear in Seven Sirens. Even for a relatively short title, this repetitive, room-clearing nature saps spirit, with gameplay eventually becoming robotic, rather than engaging.
Seven Sirens reuses a chunk of assets from the previous entry. Spread liberally throughout the adventure are returning enemies, scenery, sounds, layouts, special effects, and even boss attacks. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, after all Half-Genie Hero still looks divine, but it further galvanizes this sense of repetition. This is best exemplified by the appearance of Shantae’s nemesis, Risky Boots, who the player not only battles on four occasions, but whose showdown is the same battle copy/pasted in from her appearance in Half-Genie Hero.
Shantae has a new quartert of animal transformations, styled after cute aquatic critters. But with only so many skills required by this genre, the well is running dry. Newt is just Monkey reskinned, Tortoise is more-or-less Elephant, while Gastro Drill and Frog are essentially the exact same skill, only utilised on different surfaces. These abilities are partnered with Shantae’s new “Fusion Magic” – powerful but woefully designed spells that cut the legs off of the game’s difficulty. All of these abilities, combined with an over-abundance of loot, heart-drops, and power-ups, make our hero borderline unstoppable by the halfway mark.
At every turn, Seven Sirens is a odd mix of old and new design ideas that are often overly-familiar, unnecessary, or not developed enough to warrant inclusion. Returning weapons such as Pike Ball and Bubble are available, but pointless. Why give our gal a “Healing” spell when there are already numerous potions to buy, a spa to visit, and every other enemy drops free hearts? Additionally, the “Seer Spell” is a laborious mechanic that perhaps should never have left the drawing board.
Where Seven Sirens shines, as is always the case with WayForward, is in its utterly delightful visual design. Every new friend, enemy, and frenemy are an absolute charm to behold, decoratively drawn and exquisitely animated. The Shantae team are masters of creating magnetic characters – warm heroes and forgivable villains – and Seven Sirens continues in this tradition with its titular boss characters. Unfortunately, while the sirens are expertly conceived, the battles themselves are uninspiring, even dull on occasion. Each siren is beautiful and inventive, but there’s nothing here (save for perhaps the finale) that matches the enjoyment of HGH‘s Giga Mermaid, Ammo Baron’s rocket army, or even PC‘s Empress Spider.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect, however, belongs to the unfulfilled promise offered by Seven Sirens‘ new location, cast, and story. The flat narrative renders Shantae’s new genie friends – alongside the seven sirens themselves – as empty vessels with little player connection. That’s 10 new characters, none of whom join Shantae on her adventure, or in battle, and have little to say in conversation. Every one of the story’s stars is bursting with the potential to become a series’ mainstay, but by the time the credits roll, we haven’t gotten to know any of them. Introducing the final boss during the final boss fight is an example of the lack of importance placed on the new cast, while another new character just “turns up” in the last hour to help save the day with her deus ex magic-a.
Weirder yet, Shantae’s crew – a vital part of the series’ spirit – has perhaps the least agency to date. Bolo and Uncle Mimic make lean appearances, Sky has seemingly had a personality transplant, while Rottytops no-shows entirely until the last act. This is one of Seven Sirens‘ most confusing aspects – that the team would create all these vibrant and magical new characters, develop luscious character models for them, then have them bring so little to the story. Regardless, they all look dang cool.
I understand that all of this sounds very disappointing, but it must be clarified that Shantae and the Seven Sirens isn’t inherently a bad game. It looks great, it controls well, and it maintains an air of light, cheerful adventure throughout. It offers a handful of new features, such as a hula side-game, a stat-boosting trading card mechanic, and short cutscenes from anime studio Trigger Inc. – adding pizazz to the lean presentation. Seven Sirens is also an ideal entry-level game for speedrunners, due to its fast-paced gameplay, lack of grind, low difficulty, and easily-skippable dialogue.
Nobody who plays Seven Sirens is going to have a bad time. It’s a crisply made experience, retailing at a relatively modest price (a certified bargain on Apple Arcade). But the series has been better than this, offering players more variety, smarter mechanics, laugh-out-loud comedy, unpredictable adventure, and a dose of genuinely emotional storytelling. Despite the weaknesses, there’s still a weekend of light entertainment waiting here, especially for those who fancy a spot of map clearance on the brighter side of your Axiom Verges and Hollow Knights.
Oh Shantae, do I still love thee? Let me count the ways…
Are you kidding me? Of course I do. WayForward is a fantastic studio, proving time and again that it can produce top-tier adventures, with awesome aesthetics, starring magnetic characters. With Shantae and the Seven Sirens, something just went a little screwy in the ol’ spell-book, resulting in a sequel that fails to evolve the series, and even recedes it a little. The Shantae fanbase will happily play new entries into perpetuity, myself included, but with Seven Sirens, it’s clear that as our beloved purple-haired genie gal twirls into the next generation, it’s important – maybe vital – that she learns a few new dance steps.
Shantae and the Seven Sirens is a compact, attractive, and agreeable adventure, but its muddled design lacks variety, innovation, and vital story engagement. As such, Seven Sirens feels like a sequel on auto-pilot, one that doesn’t seize the opportunities offered by its exciting world and lively new cast, ultimately resulting in an entry that’s good enough, but had the capacity to be truly magical.
[This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.]